Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra

Book Review: Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra
selected and translated by Lex Hixon (Quest Books 1993)

This is a most excellent book on the radical teachings of Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. The appearance of these sutras around 100 BC, nearly 400 years after the life of Buddha is considered to be the origination of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition on earth. Western scholars attribute the teachings to Indian Buddhists of the time but traditional Mahayana scholars attribute the teachings to Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and other beings in the texts who hid them out to delay their appearance so that after the 400 years the people might be ready to comprehend them. The nature of the teachings is abstract, mystical, poetic, highly philosophical, yet logical and consistent. They are not so easy to understand for these reasons and for the notion that all being is “groundless.” The teachings almost seem nihilistic at times but this is not so. Prajnaparamita is also depicted as a goddess, the Mother of Wisdom, the source of the Wisdom and Enlightenment of all Buddhas. The teachings are often called “radical” in that they depart from the early Pali canon Buddhist teachings in some significant ways, although the contradiction is said to be based on one’s level of understanding. In the lore it is the sage Nagarjuna around 100 BC who brought back these “texts.” Nagarjuna was teaching at Nalanda University in India and was approached by nagas (serpent dragon spirits in human form). It is said that they brought him to their kingdom under the sea and he brought back these Mahayana sutras such as the Prajnaparamitas, the Lotus sutra, the Pure Land sutra, Jewel Heap, Inconceivable Liberation, and others. Out of these sutras, Nagarjuna developed his teaching of the Middle Way, the Madhyamaka. Nagarjuna is said to stem from the lineage of the Bodhisattva Manjushri who has the knowledge of all Buddhas. It is also said that in a later trip to other naga realms that Nagarjuna brought back the yoga tantras. He is also counted quite early, along with his student Aryadeva, in the direct mind transmission lineage of Chan, or Zen Buddhism. Indeed this being Nagarjuna is linked to all post-Pali canon Buddhism as his works are extensively studied in Chan, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.

The full text is called the Prajnaparamita of 100,000 lines. Several abridgements are the Prajnaparamita of 25,000 lines, 18,000 or 20,000 lines, and of 8,000 lines. The Heart Sutra, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the simple letter A are further abridgements. Lex Hixon’s selections and translations are from the Prajnaparamita Sutra of 8,000 lines. Having read part of Edward Conze’s “The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,” with its academic styling, copious notes, and unrefined translation – I can say that Lex Hixon’s text is much easier to follow and I found his translation to be informing and distinguished. Such texts as these beg to be presented in elegant forms that lend themselves to contemplation. Indeed, in the forward, Robert Thurman does mention that early scholars translating them into English gave them a strong nihilistic bent and that Conze, though a great scholar and linguist still had much difficulty conveying the message of the sutras. Wisdom is one of the six perfections cultivated by those training on the path to becoming a Bodhsattva. It is perhaps the most difficult, being concerned with non-conceptuality, but also the most necessary as the others are not effective without it. He gives about forty selections which I assume he titles himself. Also a few selection from the sutra of 25,000 lines are given as introductory material. In the last section he does give some later mystical Buddhist texts related to Prajnaparamita such as the Heart Sutra, 27 Verses on Mind Training, and Tilopa’s Song to Naropa from the Mahasiddha tradition. Finally he gives some typical Mahayana prayers and contemplations. The rest of this review will be mostly selected quotations with limited commentary. There is some great mystical poetry here, vast and profound. Most of the sections are in dialogue format with wisdom spoken not only by Buddha, but also by various Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and beings in deva and god-realms. Subhuti, Ananda, Avalokieshvara, Shariputra, deva king Shakra and his devas, and Sadaprarudita are other enlightened speakers in the dialogues.  Some are question and answer style and others are long mystical statements. Sometimes there are many beings in the assembly. Indeed the sutra was studied in the Buddhist universities in India where monk-scholars assembled. Later the tradition made it to Tibet where there and in exile the dialectical and debate traditions around the sutra and its commentaries are still followed today.

The Prajnaparamita Sutra describes what Hixon calls the mature practitioner of Mahayana as follows:

“The bodhisattva will always maintain a motherly mind, consecrated to the constant protection, education, and maturing of conscious beings, and inviting and guiding them along the path of all-embracing love. This Mahayana mind never succumbs to fear, anxiety or depression and is never overwhelmed by the strange adventures of awareness in the three realms of relativity – mundane form, sublime form and formlessness.”

Regarding the transcendent wisdom, or omniscience, of the enlightened bodhisattva there is this explanation:

“The unthinkably deep realization of the bodhisattva is to abide without abode, to dwell where no objective or subjective structures can dwell – without any underlying physical or metaphysical foundation. This spontaneous and foundationless dwelling in isolation from every abstract world view is of infinitely greater value than any religious teaching or contemplative experience”

There are many statements like the above that are rather deep, detailed, and full of conviction. Hixon describes the Prajnaparamita Sutra as “spiritually alive,” as  “a living spiritual energy,” and as a “reliable report on the ineffable nature of What Is.” Its subject is Ungraspable Reality. Indeed the sutra itself speaks of “transferable meritorious energy that can be dedicated and consecrated to the conscious enlightenment of all living beings.” So Hixon sees this “transferability” as the “living spiritual energy.”

Here is another “description” of the transcendent perfection of wisdom:

“Perfection of Wisdom cannot be expounded and learned, nor isolated and described, nor stated in words, nor reflected upon by means of or in terms of any limited pattern of awareness. This perfect indescribability and unapproachability is a consequence of the fact that all structures of relativity on all levels of experience are inherently indescribable and unapproachable, inconceivably calm and blissful. The same inconceivable peacefulness and innate bliss is manifest in every detail of existence.”

In the next quote it is suggested that even in the absence of substance of the substancelessness of all structures there is still function:

“To reason about uncreated Reality is just to play with words. Yet from this coherent play, lightning bolts flash forth as gnostic intuition – totally insubstantial, not coming into being even for an instant, yet diamond sharp and clear.”

Prajnaparamita is described in many ways: as “truth force,” as “the womb of truth energy,” “unconstructed presence,” “ever perfect simplicity,” “immeasurability,” “unthinkable,” “unfindable,” “indescribable,” “undefinable,” and many other descriptive terms pointing to its elusiveness and ungraspableness.

A core notion is that:

“All phenomena are Buddha phenomena, or sheer awakeness, essentially like open space.”

In order to experience in such a way one needs to dissolve the illusion of separateness, of existing as a separate personality to all other phenomena. Recognition of the purity, openness, and transparency of all phenomena makes up the vast greatness of the Perfection of Wisdom.

Regarding the mindfulness and its continuity being required to truly contemplate the Prajnaparamita teachings Buddha says that they are even mindfully contemplated while blinking the eyes, indeed in every moment and sub-moment, waking and sleeping. The transcendent insight can be absorbed and transmitted as a meritorious energy. One is encouraged to recite, copy, share, and make offerings to the teachings – in order to release their “sanctifying and liberating energy.” The godess in icon form is usually depicted holding a text. She is the “source, protectress, and guide of all Buddhas.”

The mantra is given also – as a supreme protection against ego-forces:–

(Tayatha) Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Swaha

In a selection called – Mystic Hymn to the Wisdom Mother  - Shariputra describes her as follows:

“Mother Prajnaparamita is total awakeness. She never substantially creates any limited structure because she experiences none of the tendencies of living beings to grasp, project or conceptualize. Neither does she substantially dismantle or destroy any limited structure, for she encounters no solid limits. She is the Perfect Wisdom which never comes into being and therefore never goes out of being. She is known as the Great Mother by those spiritually mature beings who dedicate their mind streams to the liberation and full enlightenment of all that lives.”

“She is not marked by fundamental characteristics. This absence of characteristics is her transcendent, mystic motherhood, the radiant blackness of her womb. She is the universal benefactress who presents, as a sublime offering to truth, the limitless jewel of all Buddha qualities, the miraculous gem which generates the ten inconceivable powers of a Buddha to elevate living beings into consciousness of their innate Buddha nature. She can never be defeated in any way, on any level. She lovingly protects vulnerable conscious beings who cannot protect themselves, gradually generating in them unshakable fearlessness and diamond confidence. She is the perfect antidote to the poisonous view which affirms the cycle of birth and death to be a substantial reality. She is the clear knowledge of the open and transparent mode of being shared by all relative structures and events. Her transcendent knowing never wavers. She is the Perfect Wisdom who gives birthless birth to all Buddhas. And through these sublimely Awakened Ones, it is Mother Prajnaparamita alone who turns the wheel of true teaching.”

In a chapter called – The Dangers of Negativity – Buddha talks about some beings who did not develop respect and veneration for the Prajnaparmita teachings and so walked out of assemblies where these teachings were happening. He says they cultivated a habit of avoiding such teachings which caused them to down-spiral into negativity and lack of awareness. He says that sensitivity and harmony of awareness is required to have confidence in and absorb these teachings.

Regarding the powerful and kind Bodhisattvas, Shariputra states:

“These invincible diamond beings, through great love for Mother Prajnaparamita, have developed irreversible commitment to universal conscious enlightenment. They are bothe adamantine and tender. By constantly drinking in and assimilating the beautiful teachings of Perfect Wisdom, these practitioners are filled with spiritual delight, boundless energy, and confident serenity. Many persons will be attracted by these bodhisattvas to plant the selfless seeds of kindness and clarity which eventually blossom into full enlightenment.”

Ever-renewing vow and continuous conscious concern are said to always occupy the minds of bodhisattvas. Here are some examples of these aspirational thoughts:

“This diamond awareness consists of a single concentrated current of prayer: May living beings never be diverted from the path of universal conscious enlightenment, which is their own true nature, empty of any separate or self-existence.”

I will constantly reintensify my commitment until universal enlightenment consciously dawns, revealing ontological transparency and harmonious functioning as a miraculously pure field of Buddha manifestation, where beings do not attribute substantial self-existence to disease or to any other obstacle. I will live and act totally in and through Perfect Wisdom so that my body, speech and mind, here and now, will fully express the most radical teaching of the Buddhas.

There is a section where a divine being, the Goddess of the Ganges, enters the assembly and Buddha makes a rare smile and the Goddess adorns his smile with floating golden flowers.  Ananda asks him the reason for the smile. He explains and predicts that the Goddess of the Ganges will in a future time called called – Starlike Aeon – she will become enlightened as the Buddha Golden Flower. After her current manifestation as the Ganges Goddess she will dwell in the realm of Buddha Akshobya awaiting her descent into the world and attaining enlightenment as Buddha Golden Flower. There is another chapter also where the Buddha makes a world enhancing smile that also involves the enlightenment prediction of six thousand heavenly beings in attendance at the assembly.

In a few sections there is mention of the three mystic doors to liberation – “wishlessness, desirelessness, and signlessness which is the radiant emptiness of all apparent existence.” Of these three the bodhisattvas concentrate on radiant signlessness, or emptiness, as they can remain in concern for all beings. Their mastery of Wisdom and Compassion allows them to fly as if majestic birds with these two wings. They are able to be in the world among passions and delusion – yet not be affected.

There is a section called – Interpretation of Dreams – which notes that having a dream of being a Buddha teaching to large assemblies of bodhisattvas and others – is a sign of - irreversible commitment. The dreamer reflects upon awakening the following aspiration:

Similar to a dream in possessing neither independent nor substantial self-existence is the entire range of manifestation. May I clearly and flawlessly demonstrate this healing truth to all suffering beings without exception when I have awakened into the boundless power of full enlightenment.

Another archetypal dream may be of a hellish realm where beings exist in a situation of intense self-generated suffering. Here the following aspiration is apt:

When I have awakened into the boundless power of full enlightenment, I will establish a Buddha field where beings evolve and are spiritually trained and matured without the need for experiencing hellish consciousness.

There is a section – Mara the Tempter – which advises against listening to or being attached to praise or supernatural voices or revelations. This is especially concerning spiritual pride or arrogance – which detracts from one’s cultivation of concern for all conscious beings.

One chapter title is a teaching in itself and represents what the aspiring bodhisattva cultivates:
 --------- Awareness Full of Friendliness ---------

Buddha describes Subhuti’s realization as follows:

“Subhuti pays no heed to the paranormal abilities developed by advanced meditators, much less to any supposedly separate person who possesses such abilities. He does not isolate or objectify the marvelous spiritual experiences which are called the grounds for confident certainty, much less any supposedly separate person who possesses such ceratainty. Subhuti does not thematically represent even Buddha nature, much less various Awakened Ones, who embody and demonstrate Buddha nature. The unthinkably deep realization of Subhuti is to abide without abode, to dwell where no objective or subjective structures can dwell, without any underlying physical or metaphysical foundation, totally isolated from conventional conceptions, perceptions and descriptions,”

Buddha describes the importance of keeping alive the Prajnaparamita teaching above all other dharma teaching and entrusts them to Ananda. Again he mentions how to practice the veneration and contemplation:

“The Prajnaparamita Sutra should be venerated ceremonially, contemplated profoundly, studied intensively, chanted melodiously, written beautifully by hand, and expanded liberally by commentary.”

There is told the story of an intense practitioner Sadaprarudita who hears the voice of Prajnaparamita and a Buddha appears to him. He travels in mind to a distant realm where he encounters the most sublime teacher of Prajnaparamita, the bodhisattava Dharmodgata in the exalted city of Gandhavati. The wondrous teachings of Dhamodgata given to Sadaprarudita are recounted in this – Sublime Saga of Sadaprarudita.

The highly revered Heart Sutra is propounded by the great compassion bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Here is some slightly different and more elaborated translation than I am used to but quite magnificent as well:

“O Shariputra, Reality is never veiled or crystallized by primordial ignorance, so there is no moment of illumination when veils or constructs are removed and ignorance ceases. There is no time at which total awakeness grows old or dies, and so there is no moment of liberation when the function of aging and dying is overcome. There is no substantial need for the drive to attain liberation, for there is no substantial bondage.”

“O Shariputra, in precisely this sense, there can be no independent self-existence of what conscious beings conceptually and perceptually project as pervasive suffering. Even the notions developed by contemplative science about the inevitable arising of universal suffering, its ultimate cessation and the spiritual conditions conducive to its cessation – even these venerable teachings are relative, or conventional. Since there is no separate moment of attaining wisdom, there is no time when Perfect Wisdom has not been attained. This uncompromising light of Prajnaparamita even reveals that there is never any independently existing Perfect Wisdom in the first place.”

Finally a quote from Tilopa’s Song to Naropa:

“The one who abandons
craving for authority and definition,
and never becomes one-sided
in argument or understanding,
alone perceives the authentic meaning
hidden in the ancient scriptures.”

Ah so much to ponder that is quite delightfully imponderable.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dark Intrusions: An Investigation Into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences

Book Review: Dark Intrusions: An Investigation Into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences  by Louis Proud  (Anomalist Books 2009)

This is an engaging book by a quite young Australian author who experiences sleep paralysis in a chronic fashion. Many of us have had sleep paralysis experiences where we awaken, or sometimes think we have awoken, and experience being unable to move while experiencing various auditory, visual, and/or tactile hallucinations. It is often associated with the hypnagogic state. The state is also associated with out-of-body experiences (OBEs). This book does a good job of investigating these relationships and other possible relationships of sleep paralysis to alien abduction and spirit possession of various sorts among other things. He investigates these comparisons from many angles and the reading was at times quite fascinating and although I do not agree with all his possible conclusions – he does present the various possible theories quite well. Interestingly, I actually had a sleep-paralysis experience (of sorts) while reading the book.

The author loosely defines the sleep paralysis experience as follows: “a condition whereby a person experiences temporary paralysis of the body shortly before waking up (known as hypnopompic paralysis), and less commonly, shortly after falling asleep (known as hypnagogic paralysis). Although their minds are reasonably alert and awake and alert, they find themselves unable to move their bodies – sometimes as long as a few minutes, though usually just for a few seconds.” It is related to the normal body paralysis of REM sleep called “muscle atonia” that keeps us still while we dream. It is thought that 25-40% of the population has experienced this condition at least once and to some it is a chronic re-occurence. Personally I can recall about 10 or so experiences of it and I suspect many more that were quickly forgotten and I suspect that many people have these experiences and forget about them. It is similar I think to dream recall where if one practices it one notes that there are many dreams remembered and then forgotten in drowsy states.

Part 1 of the book is an examination of the SP phenomena with many of the author’s personal experiences and the personal experiences of others from researchers of the phenomenon and books on the subject. One book he examines is called, “The Terror That Comes In the Night,” by David Hufford from the 1970’s. Before this book and a few others there was not much concrete information or study of SP. Hufford noted the experiences of many people in Newfoundland regarding the Old Hag phenomenon where people claim to have experienced being held down by an Old Hag, unable to move, and had difficulty in breathing. The Old Hag phenomena here gave SP a more cultural explanation in terms of a named demon. In my own researches I have read about a very similar phenomenon among the African-American Gullah people of the southeastern coast of America. In both of these cases the Old Hag is suspected to be sent by those bewitching the victim. SP also has at least a few other cultural contexts. One is a demonic form in Japan. The other is the Incubus/Succubus phenomenon commonly reported in the Middle Ages. These are all very similar phenomena and most definitely refer to sleep paralysis. The Cambodians have a notion that SP -  “permits people who suffer unjust deaths to haunt the living and creates bad luck.” This comes from psychiatrist Devon Hinton who has worked with Cambodian refugees suffering from PTSD. He considers that various stresses such as this and things like shift work and jet lag may induce SP experiences.

The author describes several of his own SP experiences and notes their terrifying nature. He has experienced tactile ‘hallucinations’ – the experience of being touched, fondled, or pushed, and occasional glimpses of  gruesome spirit creatures or energy patterns. Emotionally, he identifies his own experiences as a feeling like being violated or raped and notes the notion of tasting the energy of the entities. Others have noted auditory hallucinations. In my own experiences, auditory hallucinations and the feeling of air rushing around my ears while in the hypnagogic state have been more common with a few energy balls noted and tactile buzzing in the chakras noted. The author also talks about spirit sex, or some sort of mental sex with spirit energy that is quite satisfactory. I have never experienced this but it is fairly common in the literature – even in the Middle Ages where incubus and succubus spirits were thought to be sex-hungry demons.

Next begins Part 2 of the book where SP experiences are compared with the various spirit manifestations that they are quite often associated with. First he investigates their relationship with hauntings and poltergeist phenomena. Here he first presents the story of the Ghost of Bowling Green where college girls moving into a house in Kentucky experience multiple episodes of poltergeist activity and SP experiences quite regularly. Even visitors have experiences in the house. Here the idea that place can influence SP is compared to the long suspected association with ghosts haunting places and further ties SP to spirit manifestation activity.

He also goes through the definition of poltergeist according to Spiritism. Spiritism is an off-shoot of Spiritualism. He gives some historical focus to these movements: Spiritualism flourished from about 1840-1920 and the main idea is that spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums. Spiritism was codified by the Frenchman Allan Kardec, a name given to him by the spirits who dictated “The Spirit’s Book” – one of his famed works and according to the author a meaningful work which depicts selfishness as the root of evil. He states that the main difference between Spiritualism and Spiritism is that Spiritism advocates reincarnation while Spiritualism does not. Anyway, these ‘doctrines’ pretty much framed the techniques and rules of spirit communication as it is commonly known. Apparently Spritism is extremely popular in Brazil as are some offshoots of African Yoruban magico-religious systems similar to voodoo that have detailed spirit communication mechanisms. Proud then describes a famous case in England called the Enfield Poltergeist where the activity was said to be intense and frequent. He notes that poltergeist phenomena has been associated with children as possibly being the mediums through which the ghosts act. He thinks that some SP incidents are attempts at possession by spirits.

Next is an interesting chapter called ‘Mediumship, Channeling, and the Joe Fisher Story.’
Joe Fisher wrote several famous books about reincarnation, predictions, spirits, and ghosts. Fisher quite unexpectedly committed suicide by hurling himself off a cliff. The author investigates whether his death may have been caused or influenced by a group of “malevolent discarnate entities” like those apparently describe in his books – particularly one called “The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts.” He describes Fisher’s and others’ experiences with channeling and spirit guides and the metaphysical knowledge that they revealed. He also notes their contradictory and sometimes unruly nature and other inconsistencies among many channeled guides. Just who these spirit guides are is investigated through opinion. The late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Namgyal Rinpoche gives an interesting one: “As a general spiritual law, no enlightened being would speak through an ordinary human. The discarnate spirits who are making themselves known through channeling are united in their desperate need for love. Their audience is a generation that is also hungry for love.” Indeed, according to Buddhism and several other indigenous traditions – hungry ghosts are deeply suffering spirits beset with unfulfilled cravings. The author notes some of the contrast in defining channeling vs. mediumship. Here he notes that mediums contact spirits while channelers are contacted by spirits. He suggests that mediums communicate with discarnate humans while channelers communicate with ‘all kinds of exotic intelligences.’ Here is another quote on this distinction by the late Hindu teacher Suhotra Swami: “Mediums are experienced clairvoyants who ‘fish’ for discarnate entities,” whereas channelers are “initially psychic greenhorns who, unwittingly, or even unwillingly, are taken over by the entities.” He notes also though that the terms are often used interchangeably and that “all channelers are mediums, but not all mediums are channelers.” He goes on to describe some famous channelers and channeled beings such as Jane Roberts and Seth and J.Z. Knight and Ramtha (around whom a possibly unbalanced cult has developed). He notes that Allan Kardec’s “Mediums Book,” states that “As a general rule, distrust all communications of a mystic or fantastic character, as well as those which prescribe ceremonies or eccentric actions.” The author notes too that some channelers are ‘full trance mediums’ meaning that they enter a deep trance and are unconscious of their actions while in trance. Another interesting suggestion is the observation that channelers have been found to generally die young, suggesting that this work takes a toll on the body. The British occult author and paranormal investigator Colin Wilson, who wrote a forward to this book, suggests that mediums can get parasite effects on their vital energies from communing with spirits often. This may be an effect referred to as a “leaking aura.” Finally the author investigates the Nechung Oracle of Tibet, the medium advisor to the Dalai Lama seen depicted in the movie “Kundun.” The Nechung Oracle is more like a shaman perhaps in both appearance and action. He wears an extremely heavy helmet and whirls and hisses rather like a madman – but is said to give useful advice.

Next is the story of Stan Gooch who is a medium and psychic investigator. He has written many books, several through strictly automatic writing where spirits are said to more or less telepathically dictate the words. Gooch had many experiences in the hypnagogic state which apparently he was able to sustain. He too is quite skeptical of spirits – seeing many as lower astral entities full of flattery and often communicating meaningless jibberish in flowery language (hey I do that too!). Gooch has written several books about psychic phenomena and definitely associates SP experiences with them and poltergeists and spirit activity. Several mediums including Gooch, Joe Fisher, and the author describe satisfying encounters of spirit sex – but suggest that they may not be entirely wholesome. The author notes an observation by Gardiner and Osborne in their book, “The Shining Ones” which suggests that ancient shamans saw the hypnagogic and hypnopompic threshold states as a sort of sexual union metaphor associated with creativity – perhaps even more than metaphorically as the incubus/succubus phenomena and sexual nature of SP occurring in these states indicates.. Shamans likely regarded the hypnagogic/hypnopompic as a portal to other worlds and also trained to sustain this state. Gooch sees most spirit phenomena as ultimately internal, as psycho-spiritual aspects of ourselves rather than as external entities. I tend to favor this view although the author seems to lean to the external entity idea. There are certainly merits of both and one would best perhaps keep an open-mind (no pun intended).

Brazilian Spiritist Chico Xavier is the next topic. He was an automatic writer who wrote more than 400 books. According to this book he was also a great humanitarian and an all around nice guy easy to like. He was an apparently moral man twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The guides he channeled appeared to be very knowledgeable, consistent, and concerned for the welfare of people. Perhaps he attracted more upper astral entities.

Next we have a survey of British occultist Dion Fortune and her investigations of psychic attack and defense. Many see SP experiences as psychic attack, either initiated by the spirits themselves or by someone sending them through malicious magic or even thoughts. She says that occultists may train in projecting their etheric body double and using it as a weapon of sorts. Certain witches have also described a similar method to me.
She talks about etheric energy similar to the idea of ectoplasm, the etheric body energy being somewhat like an artificial ghost. Some of these are thought to be thought-forms. This idea is prevalent in many occultisms including theosophy. In Tibet, some thought-forms are called tulpas and it is said that some can come about through intense visualization which is a major part of tantric tradition. Spiritists call the etheric energy body the perispirit and give it very similar qualities. These types of bodies are also given in many indigenous and shamanic traditions. Fortune distinguishes between thought-forms and more distinct, independent, and self-motivated “artificial elementals.” She describes them as being dependent on energy input much like a poltergeist is thought to feed on mediums. Likely referring to schizophrenia she notes that they (quoting the author), “think themselves to be persecuted by invisible beings, when, in actual fact, although these ‘beings’ have a partially objective existence, they are actually thought-forms exuded from the aura of the patient.” She notes that unless absorbed by an object the etheric energy is directed to, it will return to the aura. She also says that the hypagogic/hypnopompic states are such that “the etheric double readily extrudes.” He also talks about the possibility of vampiric etheric spirits who have somehow escaped the so-called ‘second death’ – that of the etheric, or lower astral body. I have read about such beings in shamanic lore and there are also ceremonial means in various cultures as well in occultism to properly dispose of such energy. He wonders also at the judiciousness and safety of Tibetan and other Mahayana Buddhist practices of feeding the hungry ghosts. He mentions the various smoke and food and drink offerings to attract them and compares this to incense in Western ceremonial magic to allow them to manifest. In the Tibetan tradition the smoke and smells are said to feed them. He suggests that people overly sensitive to spirits, or chronic SP sufferers avoid such practices although I don’t know if that is warranted since I have done this many many times in differing places, times, and ritual contexts. In my view, it is OK to risk some danger in compassionate service but perhaps some folk are too sensitive. One of my teachers once mentioned an uncle of his in Tibet that practiced the Chod, or visually and mentally cutting up, cooking, and offering one’s body to spirits and demons – where one evening a demon stole his La – which is a soul component possibly corresponding to the etheric double. When he returned the next night same place same time to do his practice the La was returned.

Hypnagogia and SP are often associated with auditory hallucinations and often the hearing of voices.  I have experienced this several times. Apparently, there are quite a few people who hear voices regularly, perhaps that inadvertently enter hypnagogia regularly. The auditory hallucinations of SP sufferers and schizophrenics may be similar. They may appear to be internal or external voices. Apparently among more severe schizophrenics the voices are loudest and seem to come from without. The late psychologist Julian Jaynes wrote the book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” which postulates that the state of early historical humans was more akin to schizophrenia and that they really did hear voices which they attributed as the voices of gods. He notes the many instances of ‘divine voices’ in our earliest literature. He equates this with the more hallucinogenic right hemisphere of the brain being less connected to the left hemisphere in early man than today. The author goes through the work of clinical psychologist Wilson Van Dusen who worked at a state mental hospital with schizophrenic patients. Based on his data Proud suggests that schizophrenia may be a form of spirit possession. Van Dusen suggests two classes of spirits based on degree of general ill-will and unrulyness. This basically corresponds with the upper and lower astral classification of occultists. Van Dusen interviewed folk who apparently channeled spirits continuously. One phenomenon that is similar to other spirit communicator’s reports is that of spirits being able to read minds or mine the thoughts and memories of a person. Perhaps this is why they can appear to know things only known to a person. Several mediums as well muses like William Blake describe visions of heaven and hell – not so unlike the upper and lower, celestial and terrestrial realms of shamans. One such medium was the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). He was able to prolong the hypnagogic state and apparently launch himself to multiple realms. He had experiences of precognition, clairvoyance, and other psychic and ESP experiences as well. His spiritual awakening was initially prompted by intense dreams and visions. He was known to be kind and modest. He wrote many books on all sorts of subjects and kept records of his visions. Concerning spirits he did describe vampiric ones that Colin Wilson would term “mind parasites.” According to the author, in general he thought that spirits, “exert a profound influence on the way we think and act but normally remain unaware of our existence just as we normally remain unaware of theirs because a kind of barrier exist between them and our consciousness.” When the barrier is pierced or the threshold crossed, then sanity might be compromised. Swedenborg modeled the spiritual universe according to a hierarchy based on Christian notions of good and evil. He thought that each person has four personal spirits, two good ones dwelling in the interior of one’s mind and associated with love and affection, and two evil ones dwelling in the unconscious of one’s personal memory. He says that they are unaware of us but see consider that our thoughts and memories are their own. Reminds me in a way of Odin’s ravens.

Apparently when one is having an SP experience the brain registers REM activity so it is like one is awake yet dreaming. They can be seen as intrusion of REM activity into wakefulness. Abnormal temporal lobe activity has also been associated with these experiences so neurologist Wilder Penfield in the 1960s and more recently Michael Persinger have experimented with electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes. (somewhere I have a short paper I wrote in the 80’s about Penfield’s ESB –electrical stimulation of the brain- experiments) Persinger’s experiments with the temporal lobe have been credited with inducing SP-like and perhaps alien abduction type experiences. He has an idea called Tectonic Strain Theory where he correlates paranormal activity to geomagnetic activity. He thinks that seismic activity due to earth strain can cause electromagnetic activity that can affect the temporal lobe. This idea is controversial. The author goes through some ideas of how we are affected by electromagnetic energy of various sorts and notes that some people are more affected by it than others.

Next is a fascinating chapter about Robert Monroe and his amazing Out-of-Body experiences (OBEs). His first book, “Journeys Out of the Body” was published in 1971 and is an account of his many experiences of astral projection as it is called in occult literature. He experienced roaring sounds and vibrations. I have had these as well associated with OBE and a type of lucid dreaming. I think there are two types of lucid dreaming and this one overlaps with the phenomena of OBE. After more frequent occurrences Monroe was worried he might be developing schizophrenia but decided to explore the experiences. His first projection experiences involved projecting to the ceiling and seeing himself and his wife lying in bed. After hearing about yogis in India practicing this he decided to explore it further. He describes several instances of visiting people in far away towns and then corroborating where they were and what they were doing. Some even claimed to hear or see him. He notes and describes the astral silver cord that connects the astral body to the physical body in occult lore. His experiences also indicate that one may affect matter in this state. I have tried to communicate once in this state to my dad but he did not notice me. He noted that at times his consciousness became split between his astral and physical bodies – a condition that Lucy Gillis calls “Out of Phase Dual Awareness” in a book called “Wrestling with Ghosts.” Monroe discovered on occasion that what he thought was a spirit or entity was actually his physical body when his consciousness was projected to his astral body. This was typically during – re-entry. In fact SP experiences may be related to re-entry of this sort. Having difficult re-entries Monroe discovered that there is another energy body about 4 inches ‘out of phase’ with the physical and that it was much easier to merge with it. This out of phase second astral body may be what is associated with SP phenomena. Monroe considered that the astral body is affected by electromagnetic energy. In an experiment in a Faraday Cage that blocks out EM he was unable to project and suggested that might be a means for a ghost catcher. He describes two zones or locales of the astral. Locale I is more dense and harder to maneuver. Locale II is more refined and seems like the more natural realm of the astral body and is further removed from the physical than locale I. He describes locale II as full of spirit beings. Along the lower astral part of locale II he describes insane beings and dead souls trapped much like hungry ghosts full of craving, some craving sexual satisfaction in what he called a huge  ‘sex pile’ of males and females. Monroe also describes encounters with various ghosts and elementals. Monroe started the Monroe Institute to further investigate the phenomenon and developed a technique called HemiSynch – or Hemispheric Synchronization done through sound pulses in headphones. He has done lots of telepathic and spirit guide experiments as well and utilizes measuring of neurological phenomena through EEGs and such.

Next are the fascinating accounts of Whitley Strieber and his “visitors.” His book, “Communion” was a big seller about alien abduction phenomena. Proud goes through a lot of this and compares it to SP, OBE, medium, and all the other phenomena in the book and it compares quite favorably. Strieber wrote several other books about various “alien” beings such as “the Greys” and their knowledge, teachings, and history. His experiences were sometimes shared by his wife and others and often involved lights hovering outside the house and such things that distinguish them somewhat from dreams and astral phenomena – but perhaps that is just the component of ‘expectation’ which can be powerful. Apparently, he does compare the aliens to spirits and elementals. He also describes many OBEs so he seems to have mediumistic capabilities. Admittedly, though the ‘probing’ encounters seem a little different but interestingly enough people taking the hallucinogenic drug DMT have encountered very similar probing-type experiences.

Finally there is the story of Trevor James Constable. In his book, “The Cosmic Pulse” he describes telepathic communications from alien entities. Some of this information suggests that UFOs are some sort of astral mutants with an agenda. He suggests that UFOs can be photographed with infrared techniques. He apparently used Wilhelm Reich’s cloudbuster device (used for weather experiments he was engaged in) to attract these ‘biological UFOs.’ Another of Reich’s inventions is the Orgone Energy Accumulator which consists of alternating layers of organic and inorganic materials which either absorb or reflect this energy. The idea is to draw the energy in and trap it in a concentrated form. I guess it is like a kind of atmospheric prana that we are immersed in. It may be an etheric energy.

Anyway, great book with much more than sleep-paralysis information. I enjoyed reading about the various humans and their strange abilities and contemplating the meanings of these fascinating phenomena.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton & Company 1997, 1999)

Reading this book was a learning experience. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. The author studies bird evolution in Papua New Guinea. The book is about how and why different human societies developed in different ways. It really gets to the heart of the matter and much of the conclusions are undeniable. It debunks a lot of myths about racial superiority and inferiority. It shows how strongly human societies were influenced by geography, food availability, and the luck of timing. Basically the different continental areas are compared: Eurasia (including a small swathe of North Africa that has a similar climate), sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and Australia/New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. The complete histories of all these areas are recounted and compared and the results are rather fascinating. The story begins when one of the author’s New Guinean friends, Yali, asks him why the Westerners have ‘cargo,’ or stuff, and the New Guineans don’t. The book is an attempt to answer that question and it does so quite adequately and in great detail. Hopefully I can summarize the key points of this book for it would be great if everyone knew them. In fact, I think this would make a great textbook for a college-level class – a kind of mixture of History, Historical Science, and Geography. The author’s own summary of the book in one sentence is: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

The book begins with an overview of the spread of humans out of Africa nearly a million years ago and the likely 2nd spread out of Africa around 50,000 yrs ago of homo sapians that we all descend from today. From then and there the peoples spread out to all the continents, the latest to be inhabited being distant islands less than a thousand years ago.

The author notes that the biggest population shift of modern times has been the colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the resulting conquest, reduction, and in some cases complete demise of Native American groups. The turning point was rather well documented at Cajamarca where a few hundred Spaniards with some crude guns, horses, and much luck and crazy boldness were able to conquer and subjugate first 80,000 Incas and then the vast Inca Empire. A few other advantages they had in their initial 500 to 1 odds were some Native Indian spy intelligence and the ability to model war tactics on past campaigns through the European literary tradition. One of the biggest factors was that some years earlier Spanish settlers to Panama had brought smallpox and other diseases which began to wipe out northern Incas and the empire split up into a civil war which the Spaniards exploited. In fact, it is estimated that European diseases wiped out somewhere around 95% of the Native American population! – and this is mostly in advance of the main settling activities of Europeans.

This book contains copious charts, tables, and maps which provide great information on timing of things like plant domestication, animal domestication, arrival of certain traders and invaders and their products, suitability for domestication, written and spoken language expansions, agricultural expansion, and many other comparisons among the people of the various continents.  The next several chapters provide most enlightening histories of food production in different places in the world, first farming, then livestock. Collection of suitable and abundant large-seeded wild cereal grasses by hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent led to food surpluses and trade. This allowed the humans there to remain settled in one area and develop settlements. This gradually resulted in seeds being selected and planted and after the development of these settlements agriculture was born. This occurred somewhere around 8500 BC in this area and over the next four or five millennia spread to the corners of Europe and Asia. There were other centers of agriculture where new and different crops developed. The Rice Belt in China, the Andes in South America (and possibly the Amazon Basin as well), Mesoamerica in southern and central Mexico, and the eastern U.S. are areas where food production likely developed independently – although the American cases came thousands of years after (2500-3500 BC) the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia (8500 BC) and China (7500 BC). Four other areas are possible although in some cases food production was likely imported. These are the Sahel region of Africa, tropical West Africa, Ethiopia, and New Guinea.

The author examines why agriculture developed in each of the areas and what plant species were available. He examines basic food ‘packages’ of various places and peoples in terms of nutrition. The protein content of wheat certainly provided an advantage in getting nutrition without the need to move and hunt as much. Basic packages consisted of cereal grasses, pulses, fiber (to make clothing) and in some areas roots and tubers, and melons. The package from the Fertile Crescent provided the best nutrition especially early on before other foods were added. As far as availability of suitable high-protein big-seeded cereal grasses around the world the Fertile Crescent area far outweighed all other areas combined. These crops were suitable to spread through the temperate regions of the world which ended up being firstly mainly the east-west expanse of Eurasia which has more or less similar climatic conditions. This agricultural spread gave the Eurasian populations a somewhat homogenous plant nutritive profile. Later on (around 4000 BC) came the beginnings of fruit and nut tree domestication where again more species were found to be domesticatable in the Eurasian areas. Basically, the bio-diversity was greatest in these areas due to terrain, elevation, and micro-climatic diversity. In terms of the cereal grasses, these differences are thought to have influenced them onto an annual cycle of production, seeding, and death.

Next we come to the histories of animal domestication which also begin in the Fertile Crescent areas where again by far the most suitable animals for domestication occurred. There were known to be other large mammals that may have been suitable for domestication available in both the Americas and Australia but these were thought to have been hunted out by early human inhabitants (or possibly became extinct rather suspiciously at the same time as humans arrival).  In the case of Australia this would have been 35,000 to 40, 000 years ago. In the case of the Americas it would have been 13,000 to 10,000 years ago during the period of the Clovis hunters. Goats and sheep were the first livestock around 8500 BC in the Fertile Crescent and cattle a little later. Pigs were domesticated in China by 7500 BC, turkey, llamas, and guinea pigs in the Americas around 3500 BC, and guinea fowl in the African Sahel around 5000 BC. Of course the large mammal domesticates of the Fertile Crescent also provided manure for better agriculture. They also harbored diseases that were spreadable to humans – now living in larger settled communities. As time passed humans in these communities developed genetically-induced immunities to these diseases. Other isolated peoples would later succumb to these diseases by the hundreds of thousands when they later encountered them.

The author also examines why other hunter-gatherer peoples did not develop agriculture and animal domestication and in most if not all cases finds that their local environment and the lack of availability of suitable candidates simply did not allow it. Australian aborigines never really developed agriculture although they did some selective preparation and harvesting of wild species. Even though there are several so-called zones of Mediterranean climate in the world such as California and Chile they did not have suitable native species for domestication and in some cases the wild food was abundant enough to discourage it. Even though Africa had many candidates for animal domestication, none were actually domesticated and the author examines why and finds that for various reasons they were entirely unsuitable in the end even with the best of skill. Some animals such as elephants could be ‘tamed’ from the wild but not truly domesticated and bred to live and breed among humans. He goes through all 148 candidate species around the world and the 14 that were actually domesticated of big terrestrial herbivorous animals. The reasons given for unsuitability include: growth rate (gorillas and elephants take too long to grow up), captive breeding (some animals just won’t breed in captivity such as cheetahs and vicunas), nasty dispositions (this includes grizzly bears, African wild buffalo, zebras, and other equids), tendency to panic (gazelles), and social structure – most all domesticated large mammals have three favorable characteristics: they live in herds, they have a well developed dominance hierarchy, and their herd ranges overlap – which keeps fighting way down as in some herds that migrate seasonally.  Humans took advantage of these characteristics so that the animals would imprint on humans as the dominant leaders and be easy to gather and lead.

Next we come to an interesting chapter about the axial orientations of the comparable continents. We find that the climate of Eurasia is much more homogenous than the others and also has less environmentally challenging barriers along its breadth. In Africa and the Americas where the orientation is north-south there is change from temperate to sub-tropical to tropical and back again. There are also formidable mountains, jungles, and deserts to cross. In fact some areas only hundreds of miles apart had very little contact compared with areas in Eurasia thousands of miles apart. This was a big factor on agricultural spread as well since crops developed in Eurasia would not do well in tropical climates and vice-versa until species were altered. The tropics of Africa also would not support horses and cattle as they tended to die from disease. Tropical diseases such as malaria tend to spread by mosquitoes and limited the influence of temperate peoples there so there was in general less Eurasian influence in tropical areas than in temperate areas.

Next he covers the history of microbes and ‘crowd diseases.’ Many of these killing diseases came from domesticated animals and armed the invaders of new areas with a most powerful weapon for wiping out indigenous populations. Since agriculture is able to support much higher population density than hunting and gathering – these crowd diseases passed more easily among settled peoples. Although these diseases like measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, and pertussis are now modified into human-to-human forms they originally came from similar pathogens passed among cattle, ducks, pigs, dogs, and chickens – as we even now are affected by fear of dangerous strains of bird-flu or swine-flu. Not only were Native Americans decimated by Eurasian germs but so too were Pacific islanders, Australian aborigines, and Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. The tropical killers – malaria, cholera, and yellow fever – by contrast posed a big obstacle to European colonization of tropical areas.

Next we come to the fascinating history of written language and how it influenced different societies to their advantage. Simply having a usable written language allowed knowledge to be more rapidly transmitted and in greater quantity and detail. Among the world’s large empires it was only the Inca that did not have writing. The author lists four possible places where writing developed independently. The two most likely places are Sumer and Mesoamerica. The two others are China and Egypt but they may have been influenced by earlier Sumerian cuneiform writing. The author notes the three strategies of writing systems where a sign can represent a single sound, a syllable, or a whole word. Although, most alphabets nowadays are mostly the single sign version – alphabetic – most are combinations of all three where some signs represent syllables and some are logograms like Egyptian hieroglyphs – even though the Egyptians also had alphabetic and syllabic or phonetic sounds too. Mesoamerican writing began a few thousand years after Sumerian around 600 BC among the Zapotecs of southern Mexico. The author does make the note that it is much easier to learn and adapt and alter to one’s needs an existing written language than to make one’s own – although in the cases of China and Egypt that may have occurred and even if they were influenced by Sumerian they certainly invented much of it. “The evolution of the alphabet can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, which included a complete set of 24 signs for the 24 Egyptian consonants.” The Semites took the logical next step beginning around 1700 BC of discarding the logograms and other conventions and developing a purely alphabetic writing system. The letters were given word meanings – probably for ease of remembering: ie Aleph – ox, Beth – house, Gimel – camel, Daleth – door, etc. with the sound of each letter the beginning sound of the represented thing. Other early adapted writing forms were the earliest syllabary of Minoan Crete – Linear A. The Greeks ended up going with the Semitic-derived alphabet – indeed it is thought that all alphabets derive from it. So from the Semitic- Phoenician-Canaanite punic writing all alphabetic writing derived and passed on through manuscript or blueprint-copying – or possibly occasionally through idea-diffusion like that of the Irish ogham. Through alphabetic writing was born the major literary traditions of the world where more concise, simple, and precise writing conveyed more ideas faster. That is not to say that the value of hieroglyphic or syllabic writing is any less sophisticated in the symbolic – just less quick and precise. Hieroglyphs and other symbolic runic systems may have special features adaptable to conveying information in different ways. He even investigates some more modern developed writing systems such as syllable writing systems developed by the Cherokee Sequoyah, the modern Korean syllable writing called Han’gul, and one probably invented by Polynesian Easter Islanders in the late 1700’s. The author considers that Chinese has a more likelihood of having developed independently as no writing systems were known from the time period between the Indus Valley and China – while in Egypt the development was probably through idea-diffusion where they made their own system knowing that the Sumerians used one successfully.
The author also shows the famed Minoan Phaistos Disk where about 241 signs of unknown meaning were clay stamped (ie. technically printed) into a disk. No other writing of this sort was ever found and the disk is dated to 1700 BC. This can be considered the first printing although the process was not to be rediscovered until much later by the Chinese and then again by Guttenberg in the Middle Ages. This next section in the book is devoted to inventions and how and why they occur. They tend to occur much more gradually than is shown in history, many occur as result of accident as by- products when looking to solve a wholly different problem, and another factor is acceptability or convincing the populace that an invention will be useful or economic or enhancing in some way. One rather odd example is the letter arrangement on a typical keyboard – the QWERTY – named for the first five letters on the top line of letters. The reason it ended up like that is that typing too fast was causing problems with early metal typewriters so that configuration was designed to slow down typing. After typewriters got better and faster it was too late as too many people had learned that way and so now we are stuck with it so-to-speak. In addressing whether certain ‘primitive’ societies are as  ‘inventive’ as so-called more civilized societies the author makes notes of his many hours among Native New Guineans where he notes that they are extremely inquisitive and know in great detail their local environment. He goes on to show how various indigenous cultures took ideas from Eurasian societies and inventively adapted them and expanded them for technological and artistic benefits. Here he notes that some indigenous societies were more receptive to new technologies than others for various social reasons. So he suggests that over time and space when some technology becomes available and is accepted for use the innovations will come. Many inventions passed to others through idea-diffusion and so copying the invention. More geographically isolated societies did not benefit from this.

The next section is about how societies are organized. He examines differences in a classification from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states in terms of membership, government, religion, economy, and social factors. For example a band is made up of dozens of nomadic kin of a single ethnicity, egalitarian government, no hierarchy, informal conflict resolution, no food production, no division of labor, no slavery, no social stratification, no tribute based on religion, no literacy, and only reciprocal exchanges. By contrast a state has tens of thousands of members in fixed villages and cities with much social stratification and centralized government, judicial system, state capital, possible religious tribute, intensive food production, division of labor, and possible large-scale slavery, etc. He goes through the details of these ‘stages’ and shows how several societies developed in these ways. He defines religion basically as supernatural beliefs that became institutionalized. The kleptocrat is the god-king or god-chief (among say the Hawaiians) who keeps too much of the tribute allotted him by the society. “The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from the producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put.” The elite has a better chance of retaining power if it has an ideology or religion that justifies its existence. Among hunter-gatherer societies there are a few that made to the organizational ability of chiefdoms but never to states. The comparison of food production leading to population or vice versa is a chicken and egg argument for society development. The author notes that they stimulate each other – by what he calls – autocatalysis. The example he gives is that population leads to societal complexity which leads to increased food production which in turn stimulates population. He notes three ways food production influences complex societies: First there is seasonal labor associated with things like planting and harvesting. After food ids harvested and secured there can be labor available for public works, ability to produce more food and people, and better opportunities for conquest. Secondly, food surpluses promote specialization of labor and social stratification. Thirdly, food abundance allows sedentary living and so promotes possession or ownership of goods.

Next he goes on to describe the histories of several distinct peoples. First is the island of New Guinea, once connected to Australia during the Pleistocene glacial period. He notes the very significant cultural differences between native New Guineans and native Australians, even those among New Guineans of different climatic regions and elevations of the island. He goes through the genetic divergence of these two peoples as well and of the later arrivals from China and southeast Asia of the pig to New Guinea, of the dog (dingo) to Australia, and of yams and taro that provided better nutrition in already developed agriculture of New Guinea. The Austronesian expansion from Indonesia which colonized the Pacific islands had much less impact on New Guinea and Australia due to their unique climates, less hospitable in the main landing areas. Next it is China with its uniquely unified culture. Sino-Tibetan languages from the north scattered other languages to the south and became the dominant culture and greater political unification. Food production, technology, writing, and state formation led to neighboring regions copying the model. Next in examining the settling of the Polynesian islands one comes to the conclusion based on language that The Austronesian languages come initially from Taiwanese languages so it is likely the Taiwanese first set out and settled the Indonesian islands conquering and intermarrying with the natives there. Archeological evidence suggests that this began around 2500 BC making it to Hawaii and Easter Island around 500 AD and finally to the Chatham Islands off of New Zealand around 1300 BC. There are a few artifacts such as the Taiwanese ‘bark beater’ used to pound bark into clothing, that link it to Polynesian cultures as well as the arrival of the pigs, chickens, dogs, yams, taro, and certain pottery styles. The development of the double-outrigger sailing canoe greatly advanced these peoples’ abilities to sail to explore the South Pacific seas. New Guineans, especially those in the interior were much less affected by Austronesians since they already had developed agriculture and other plant and animals domesticates from earlier Austronesian visits. Those earlier visits also let them gradually develop immunity to some diseases.

Continental and hemispheric comparisons occupy the next section. One thing of note is the observation that most language expansions are firmly associated with agricultural expansions. Two later historical ones are definitely based on horse-based pastoralism – Hungarian and Mongol/Turkic advances are late, in the 9th to 11th centuries. Possibly also the Indo-European is related to horse-based pastoralism but one can’t deny that food production may have been a factor, perhaps the main one as Renfrew suggests. He does a small section on settlement patterns in the north by the Norse to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of North America. The harsh climate and lack of resources were strong factors holding back Norse expansionism. Then there is a chapter about the history of Africa noting language variations, climatic differences, significant genetic differences among peoples there, settlement patterns, technological innovations, and agricultural expansion. One thing of interest is that the Austronesians settled the island of Madagascar intermarrying with natives there and may even have introduced the xylophone (balafon) to Africa. They also brought bananas and the Asian yam. Africans in the Sahel grew sorghum and pearl millet. Those just south of there in West African grew African yams and Kola Nuts. Ethiopians in East Africa grew coffee and tef as well as wheat and other crops that came from the Fertile Crescent. Agricultural expansion was found to lead language expansion among the Bantu who moved south and southeastward with the help of metal tools and weapons as well as crops and species from the Sahel zone.

The last section is about how history can and should be studied as a science and how this can proceed. Here he notes long-term comparisons of regions as yielding useful information. As I said before this book does serve to debunk myths of inferior/superior peoples and shows how strongly geography and climate affect historical developments. Chance and the luck of timing are also a factor that can’t be denied. This was a totally awesome book and a fun one to read. Well worth it. Finally he gives a section of further readings to this latest edition.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Way of Mystery: Magick, Mysticism, and Self-Transcendence

Book Review: The Way of Mystery: Magick, Mysticism, and Self-Transcendence by Nema (Llewellyn Publications 2003)

This is a thoughtful and wonderful book with insights into human nature and both the goal and the journey that is Mystery. Nema is well-known in the Thelemic magickal community as a purveyor of mystical writings and practical ideas concern the Mysteries of Maat and the Magick of Maat. Ma’at is the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, balance, and justice.  Nema was also influenced in her early days by Catholic mystics and Manichean gnostics. Later she began communing with nature and self in Wiccan, Thelemic, and Hindu Yogic forms. She seems to be good at coining interesting and memorable terms and phrases.  She gives one of the Maxims of Maat: “All that is, lives; all that lives is intelligent.” This is an interesting way of looking at matter and the life that emerges from it. It accords with the views expressed in the Vedas and Upanishads. Regarding the Magick of Maat, one can discern that the search for ‘truth’ is certainly synonymous with the mystical journey. She notes the similarities between Crowley’s system of Thelema (Greek for Will) as a magickal system and Maat as the mystical side in that it is more a will towards truth/balance/honesty/justice. She also notes Maat as the daughter principle in the four-fold family structure of the Hermetic Egyptian form of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton. She gives the three major aims of Maat Magick as: 1) personal transformation, 2) taking the human race into its next stage of development, and 3) preparing us for communication with nonhuman intelligence. She suggests that we attend to these tasks with a child-like sense of awe and wonder.

She sort of defines magick and mysticism as two sides of the same coin. Magick is more to do with causing change with will while mystery is more to do with closely watching the universe in the quest to understand it. As for her own summary of the meaning of the book she offers: “It’s as simple an account as I could make it, written to encourage you to find your way to the truth of things. For me, it’s an act of enlightened self-interest; for you, I hope it’s a new understanding of “enlightened,” of “self,” and of “interest.” Nema seems to pervade the book with ideas from cutting edge science like - the anthropic principle - which suggests that the laws of quantum mechanics are as they are because humans are around to observe and discover. She considers the values and nuances of the views of science, philosophy, and art in the search for meaning and mystery. These, she reminds us, are all ways of knowing.

One chapter covers her notion of –The Forgotten Ones – referring to our bio-genetic survival urges. She divides this ‘programming’ into eight different urges which she interestingly loosely correlates with the chakras of yoga. These Forgotten Ones are: hunger, sex, fight-or-flight, clanning, communication, curiosity, altruism, and God-hunger (the urge for transcendence). Interestingly, she talks of learning these things (perhaps mystically and/or metaphorically) during “conversations with the astral pattern of the human DNA molecule.” These Forgotten Ones are our basic drives and the relationship to the bodily parts of the chakras is rather intuitive. There is a meditation on the chakras given as a simple way to familiarize with them.

There is a chapter that surveys the whole idea of ‘divine inspiration’ from the writings of prophets to the insights of science. She gives the principle of holography and chaos science as examples of the microcosm/macrocosm similarity principle of Hermes Trismegistus – as above, so below. Another interesting insight she shares is her idea of the Universal Pattern of Consciousness. Examples of this are, “the elegance of physical laws, the kinship we recognize with all forms of life, and the wonder of stars in their galaxies and clusters..... This pattern is based on the tendency for simplicity to seek complexity, and on the forces that arise from the relationships of parts in a whole.” The contemplation of nature and the human situation are the function and domain of the mystic and spiritual seeker.

There is a short chapter on working with emotions. She suggests examining one’s emotional sensitivities and assessing overall psychological health before embarking on the mystical path. Keeping a journal is recommended as is self-honesty. She suggests pranayama (yogic breath control), mantra, and relaxing music as methods to stabilize emotions. Suggestions for regular meditation and ritual are also given. Several banishing rituals are given, both traditional and improvised. She recommends classifying and exploring according to the Qabalistic schemes. There are sections as well on Mantram and Sigils as ways to practice.

Chapters about – Signs of Progress – and – Unlearned Knowledge – are very interesting. Unusual manifestations are discussed as are strange insights into natural phenomena that seem to just appear. She gives a few examples about her unusual insights into the nature of various stars. She suggests caution and further evaluation in determining how meaningful various insights can be. She suggests further examining some of your – unlearned knowledge – through the use of Gematria, in order to glean further insights into the nature of your experiences. In another chapter is described the astral planes and the illusory-type experiences ‘there.’ Like many mages she divides the astral into the lower astral, where ‘entities’ and experiences are more tricky and less reliable – and the upper astral where more reliable information and experiences can be had, including knowledge of personal and racial history along the lines of the idea of accessing the Akashic Records.  She suggests familiarizing with the astral realms as much as possible without getting too caught up in one’s experiences. She makes an interesting suggestion that familiarity with the astral realms can help us to properly dispose of our astral body at death – typically through dispersal into the essence of the elements. The interactions between Intellect and Intuition are explored in other chapters. There are some investigations as well into the nature of ‘Self.’ One is a traditional eastern method of investigating what is the self by asking if it is this or that – memories, instincts, tendencies, thoughts, etc. Sincere and regular contemplation of this nature is a facet of several spiritual systems. She describes binding one’s sub-selves according to the tradition of Abremelin the Mage – after attaining to the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel – a notion of a Higher Self, or Integrated Self – discovered through a prolonged quest through fasting, ablution, prayer, ritual, and concentration.

In a chapter called – Shadow Mirror – she investigates the Mystery of Evil – and also the Mystery of the Hidden and the Unknown – that religionists often associate with evil. She notes that so-called ‘evil’ can be seen as imbalances in our programming – our bio-genetic urges, previously mentioned as – The Forgotten Ones. One useful reason to practice magick and/or mystery is to re-balance and re-integrate these bio-urges so that our psycho-spiritual health is enhanced as is our ability to transform or evolve.

Next the nature and relationship between illusion and reality are investigated. “What is the point, or the value, of making a distinction between illusion and reality? ... We need dualism to navigate the open passages of mystery, to provide contrast, consonance, drama, and decisions in art, and to make the currents of manifestation flow.” Really if one thinks about it the Truth as non-dualism can only really be described in dualistic (conceptual) terms so one can only describe reality in the terminology of illusion since reality is beyond the convention of terminology.

Dealing with a return to mundane life after epiphanic mystical experiences is an important consideration, she notes. As mystic states are states of heightened awareness with access to deep levels of mind, there can be crossover into madness if one is psychologically or emotionally imbalanced. The ability to ground and practice being comfortable with whatever state appears is very important.

There is a chapter devoted to the notion of – The Dark Night of the Soul – described by St. John of the Cross. This is all about letting go of the ego, the old self, and ‘crossing the Abyss’ that leads to true change. This is the notion of self-sacrifice, or slaying the ego. She goes through some of Crowley’s terminology of this process that can be described as Thelemic Mysticism. The so-called Black Brother is one who resists change and grasps onto shards of ego due to fear and imbalance and potentially causing trouble for others.
After one successfully re-emerges beyond egocentricity there is only left to practice continuing authenticity and assisting others.

In another chapter she examines the nature and dynamics of associating with other spiritual practitioners. She notes again that there are many levels and sublevels of the various so-called attainments and partial attainments and it is not always easy to discern where one is, let alone where others are along the continuum. People may have very profound experiences and then revert back to immature behavior under the influence of certain emotional or psychological stimuli. People have different tolerances to various behaviors as well. But it is true that gauging the overall progress of oneself and others is no easy task.

Finally she investigates the expansion of the idea of ‘Self’ to include the universe at-large. She notes her intuitive communication with a being called N’Aton which she thinks represents our next species level of consciousness. She sees it as a species-wide mutation where groups of consciousnesses become connected intuitively into a double-consciousness of sorts. This may be a greater integration of the idea of the Jungian Racial Unconscious or somehow related. The details are quite unmanifested. She suggests the idea of God/DNA – sort of an innate intelligence that guides us and upgrades our programming when we are ready for it. N’Aton has been compared to Pierre Teilhard de Chardon’s idea of the Omega Point where humanity as a whole will transcend the physical plane.

In an Appendix she gives her inspired text , Liber Pennae Praenumbra – (the Book of the Foreshadowing of the Feather) which she wrote – or rather was written through her by a manifestation of the goddess Maat – in 1974 after a Time Travel Magickal Working in Cincinnati. She also gives a commentary on this text called – Feathersong. It is a very interesting text which gives some magickal ideas of how to develop the so-called double consciousness as well as ideas for connecting with the Aeon of Maat, or the Current of Maat – the numerical representation of the Maat Current is 696. The Magickal word is IPSOS. There is much more to this text and other interesting symbolisms. Also there is much more to ponder in The Way of Mystery but overall it is a wonderful overview of a vast and profound subject, a subject that is vastness and profundity itself. Also, if I did not mention it already, I am intrigued by her notion of mystically communicating with stars and stellar objects. She mentions familiarizing with them through pictures from such sources as the Hubble telescope. Makes me want to go out and stargaze as soon as the weather warms up!