Round the Bend

Good work, or good works… you decide.

I had the good fortune this week to read Round the Bend, by Nevil Shute, a popular and prolific novelist of the first half of the 20th century. Round the Bend is said to be his favorite work, if not his most popular or critically acclaimed.

Unusually, for a novelist, Shute was an engineer and translated his engineering experiences and mindset to popular fiction. Thus, the narrator of Round the Bend is Tom Cutter, an aircraft mechanic and pilot who starts a successful charter business in the Persian Gulf. The book works as an interesting story about doing business in an exotic location, but its real subject is Connie Shak Lin, a mechanic that Cutter hires. Shak Lin is a most unusual man; he preaches a doctrine of aircraft maintenance that relies heavily on religious precepts, and he gains a following. That he is a Christ figure is made clear and, yes, as such he is controversial and dies a conventionally early death.

I don’t mean to review the book or give away its plot; however, if you read and liked Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance you will surely enjoy Round the Bend.

I was intrigued by the connection made between good work and a good life, a connection that is at least implied in most of the world’s religions. Speaking for myself, I have known two men who seemed, to me, to be at least a little holy without being jerks about it, and both were men who worked very hard at their respective trades.

One is a land surveyor, my former employer and undoubtedly one of the finest boundary experts in California. His holiness derived from relentless pursuit of evidence, clear thinking, and the sort of scrupulous honesty that can be damned annoying at times. Perhaps that doesn’t sound all that holy, but to me it was—I know that his example inspired me to be a better surveyor and a better man, and that I am one of many who would say the same.

The other is an architect and contractor, a man I interviewed for several magazine articles. His books and personal example have been immensely inspiring to thousands, and I personally believe that some of his writings amount to scripture. However, he has no religious air about him—rather, he has sweated and worked on job sites around the world, seeking to physically embody timeless ideas in buildings that will live on as testaments to his beliefs.

Both men are primarily businessmen, which might seem a little strange if you look to conventional religion for your spiritual inspiration. But again, speaking for myself, I have known more than my share of ministers and gurus, and have yet to find any as genuine as these two teachers.

So I conclude that if I am to find salvation in this life, it is more likely to come from doing good work than by having a particular set of religious beliefs.

Reading & Applying Personal Development for Smart People, by Steve Pavlina – Chapter Three, Power

“… power remains an essential component of conscious growth. Without it, you can be no more than a passive victim of your reality. With power, you become a conscious creator.” – Steve Pavlina

Power can seem like a strange thing to list as a core principle in a philosophy of personal growth; after all, we trust in the universe and the various laws of manifestation, right? And power is only desired by our greedy corporate overlords, right?

Well, no. As Steve Pavlina points out in Personal Development for Smart People, power is something like money—you absolutely need it in some circumstances. And, even Biblically, it’s not money that’s the root of all evil; it’s the love of money. The same is true of power. Really, to consciously accomplish anything in your life you need some amount of power, if only the power to decide what you really want for yourself. And, like money, the use of power can be good or bad, dark or light; it’s not inherently or automatically anything, it’s merely a neutral resource that can be developed and tapped.

And of course, when a righteous, generous, intelligent, and otherwise virtuous person has a measure of power, they are able to do things that benefit all of us. We want some people to have power, the more the better.

So, how does one develop power? Steve begins with an idea that appears in a lot of self-help and channeled literature, an idea that I agree with absolutely… and I am not really an ‘absolute’ kind of guy. He says, “It’s impossible to build your power until you accept total responsibility for your life.”

Don’t blame others, don’t blame genetics or fate, don’t blame circumstances. Don’t complain or whine or seek revenge. Don’t spend your life looking for the right diagnosis. Don’t try to evade or deny your role in creating your life circumstances. To give a concrete example, if you’re overweight—you’re the one who ate what you ate.

What about extreme circumstances? E.g., what if you’re in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, framed by some evil person? Or what if you’re born into a violent, poor society, as exists in some parts of the world? The thing is, even if you can identify other people who have done bad things to you, it’s still best, for you, if you accept responsibility for your circumstances. That attitude leaves the power to make changes in your hands. If you have problems, you are the one who will need to solve them anyway—odds are, no one is coming to rescue you. As Steve says, “Blame can only make you powerless. It doesn’t matter who contributed to your current situation—all that matters is that you must live with it. No amount of blame can make that burden any easier.”

A New Criteria for Goal Setting
Under the subheading Focus, Steve makes a point that’s new to me; good goals will do something positive for you in the present. That is, one way to evaluate a goal, and it’s resonance with your values, is to determine if setting the goal makes your life better right now. For instance, you could make it a goal to own your own business in two years. And maybe the thought of owning your own business makes sense and seems logical. But if it’s really a good goal, for you, it will do something positive for you immediately even if that something as simple as giving you a sense of inspiration. In the case of a goal to own your own business, possible immediate benefits are easy to list: less concern about current office politics, clarity about what to do with an inheritance, motivation to take a class you enjoy, etc. Conversely, the thought of owning your own business could feel overwhelming, or perhaps it makes sense ‘on paper’ but you really can’t develop much passion for it. Analyzing the immediate effect of a goal, even a goal that could take years to accomplish, really is a great way to evaluate goals. That was a very useful takeaway for me.

On the other hand, Self-Discipline (another subheading) is needed to keep working on a goal. I think Steve is at his best with chapters like this; he’s completely comfortable with concepts like the Law of Attraction, and manifesting, but he’s also forthright about the effort and discipline needed to make effective change. It’s useful and meaningful to discuss these concepts in a book on personal development. He says, “Imagine all the wonderful accomplishments that will be within your grasp once you become disciplined enough to consistently follow through on your best intentions.” He’s right of course, and his advice on developing self-discipline is helpful.

A Few More Interesting Points
Steve links power with desire, which I found interesting. It reminded me of another writer, (Seth Godin, maybe?) who talks about an ever-present danger in our culture; becoming a cog. In other words, we find a job that slots us into a certain role, and as we learn to live a passion-free life filling that role, we steadily give up more and more of our personal power. If we really want something, if we desire it strongly, we will find ways to make it happen… and that’s power. So one way to build power is to identify the things we really want, and use that desire to fuel our passion and our commitment to change.

Under the subheading Self-Determination, Pavlina addresses social conditioning that can prevent us from clearly identifying what we want in a given situation.”Life is constantly asking: What do you want?” he writes, “You have the freedom to answer that question however you wish.” This is an extension of the above point about desire; to really tap into power, we need to evaluate goals to see if they come from within, or from social conditioning. You may feel some pressure to advance at work, for example, because that’s what people do. But if it’s not really what you want, you’re unlikely to make real change happen.

You have to get over cowardice and timidity if you want to build power. A tolerance for failure is present in all powerful people and, as another writer has said, “The willingness to be embarrassed is one prerequisite for an interesting life.” Together with negative cultural conditioning, cowardice and timidity are the three blocks to power Steve discusses and the remedy for all of them (and other things besides—he likes this concept) is Progressive Training. That is, find ways to gradually increase your power and self-discipline, rather than make big dramatic resolutions. It’s much like weight training; by progressively adding small amounts of weight at intervals, one can work up to lifting very heavy weights. Similarly, by finding easy ways to progressively build qualities like self-discipline and responsibility, one can eventually become a truly powerful person. For example, one can gradually develop the ability to work productively for eight hours a day by first committing to a daily quota of just one productive hour, or half hour, each workday… and then adding, say, 15 minutes per day per week. Practical ideas are given, such as setting quotas and establishing more productive morning routines.

A Check In
I started reading and posting about Personal Development for Smart People back in July, so maybe now is a good time for a check in on my own experiences. I have been journaling, and find that very helpful. But I can go further with that; I tend to pick a topic that’s on my mind and write freely about it, and that works great, but I wonder if I could be a little more proactive with my writing by selecting things I want or desire, rather than always writing about the challenges I face. Journaling on ideal scenes, which I’ve done once, seems extremely productive.

The chapter on Truth has proven to be extremely powerful for me. I wrote originally that it, “…didn’t really knock me out,” and I hereby retract that. In fact, by focusing on truth and clarity I have made some dramatic changes so far this August. I have begun a morning practice of weighing myself and measuring my waistline, and recording those figures on spreadsheets. I also work out my current financial net worth each morning, and record that as well. All the spreadsheets include a line that graphically tracks the change I need to make each day in order to meet one year or five year goals.

It’s been transformative. Not only did I completely end my denial about my current health and weight and financial standing—which, I don’t mind telling you, precipitated a couple of ‘come to Jesus’ moments—I also know definitely whether or not I’m making progress on health and wealth goals. And for three weeks now I’ve seen numbers going in the right direction, with ample evidence that the all-that-is is providing enthusiastic encouragement.

I don’t have similar feelings yet with the chapter on Love. But I’m encouraged to go back and pick a few exercises and put more effort into application. And I’ll be looking for ways to progressively train myself to be more productive—the quota method appeals to me. To sum up, I’m glad I’m reading and applying Personal Development for Smart People.

Next post: Oneness!

Steve Pavlina’s blog is here.

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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Reading & Applying Personal Development for Smart People, by Steve Pavlina – Introduction

I certainly count Steve Pavlina as one of my most important online mentors, and I’ve read just about everything he’s published on his blog for the last several years. I also purchased his book, Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth soon after it came out in 2008, so it’s a little strange that I’m just now getting around to actually reading it, especially since it doesn’t simply gather blog posts into book form—it’s all new writing, published nowhere else.

Or maybe not so strange. I quite like Steve’s (I guess I’ll call him Steve throughout this series, but I don’t mean to imply we’re buddies; we’ve never met) quirky viewpoints in the relatively small quantities supplied by his blog, but I wasn’t at all sure they’d work in book form. Also, Steve can be a little judgmental and preachy in tone which, again, is not so horrible in a blog but I was worried that a whole book of it would be insufferable.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Steve Pavlina is a writer who emphasizes direct experience and issues call to action. An uncomfortable writer. It’s perfectly possible that I have simply been afraid of the self-examination and actual experimentation that this book will likely ask of me.

But for a variety of reasons, some of which I will reveal in the course of this series, now seems like a good time in my life to read Steve’s book and seriously consider applying his ideas. And, it seems like a good idea to write about the process. I hope doing so will deepen my understanding of the book, be helpful for others who are interested in this book or Steve’s blog or personal development generally, and establish some accountability for myself—if this book can help me to live a happier and more fulfilling life, I really want some pressure to apply its principles and maybe public discussion of my reading will supply that pressure.

So, first some brief background on me, my quick take on Steve Pavlina, and then I will conclude this first entry with a look at the introduction to Personal Development for Smart People.

A Bit About Me
If you read this blog, you’re probably already aware that I spent many years of my life—from 20 until almost 40—in a Christian fundamentalist cult. In fact I was quite a zealous Jehovah’s Witness, and devoted many of those years to full-time preaching, moving my family to join small congregations, and service as a ministerial servant (a sort of junior minister). I quit about ten years ago, and have spent a lot of time since then trying to figure out ‘big picture’ questions about religion, spirituality, politics, evolution, and the like. Trying to understand and trying to heal.

That questing spirit eventually led to a radio show, this blog, a couple of self-published print books, and my eBook. And, I like to think, a saner and deeper appreciation of the miracle of life and a whole lot more joy. Especially since I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but really for my whole life, I have believed in—and occasionally directly experienced—a numinous presence in my life, a presence that I believe pervades all of existence; I occasionally refer to it as the all-that-is. And in the years since I quit being a JW, I have felt that presence far more deeply.

So I’m primed, as it were, for a writer like Steve Pavlina—his mix of practicality, mysticism, and emphasis on experimentation and direct experience is catnip for me. And yes, I’m a big reader in the field of spirituality and self-help. I’m a seeker, I suppose, and I’ve certainly performed my share of experiments—my nearly 20 years in the cult was one of them.

I’ve had remarkable experiences applying strange ideas, and I hope to have more such experiences in my life. Many times those ideas have been supplied by a book.

My Quick Take on Steve Pavlina
Like many people, I first started reading Steve’s blog back in 2005, when his experiments with polyphasic sleep went viral. What a great series of posts that was; Steve actually did what a lot of people had thought about, and converted fully to a polyphasic sleep pattern where he slept, in 20 minute periods, for a total of just two hours per day. It was like reading the diary from an expedition exploring a new river, or planet—his struggles to adapt to the pattern, his daily life as a person sleeping differently from just about everyone else on the planet, and his eventual ‘re-entry’ into normal sleeping were utterly absorbing.

That was enough to grab me, frankly, but he followed up with additional bravura series on eating raw, living life subjectively, etc., and his site is absolutely loaded with great one-offs like How to Graduate from Christianity, a personal favorite. And he had plenty of confessional posts as well, as when he and his wife divorced or when he decided to explore BDSM. I felt, and still feel, that he and I are on roughly parallel paths, but his mode of travel is deeper and faster than mine, and he seems to be much farther along.

Steve also, at least by his accounts, is making a very comfortable living based solely on his writing and workshops and, as a full-time writer, I obviously find that intriguing. So really, for a lot of reasons, I’m a perfect audience for his book and it makes sense for me to work at applying it. And as a blogger and writer it even sort of makes sense for me to do so publicly—wish me luck!

One More Thing

All the above stipulated, there is a random element to my choice of books to blog. I’ve been reading a lot of Gregg Braden lately, too, and a series on any of his books would also have been fun and interesting. But, bound by the inscrutable force of whim, Personal Development for Smart People it is.

Personal Development for Smart People, the Introduction
Steve begins with a story he’s told on his blog before… which is to say, it begins with him in a jail cell, after being arrested for felony grand theft. As he tells the story, he stole for kicks, mainly, and at the time of his arrest he was attending UC Berkeley as a computer science major but, along with his freedom, that was also in peril due to failing grades.

So, a classic come-to-Jesus moment; jail, scholastic failure, and the possibility of several years of incarceration thanks to prior offenses. In high school, Steve had been a straight A student and president of the math club. But now, after being released on bail, Steve was in a serious funk and basically comtemplating a failed life.

He describes an amazing stroke of luck that helped him to avoid actual jail time, but he was expelled and went home to Los Angeles to lick his wounds. Over a couple of years, he says, he gradually formed a personal code of ethics, went back to school and was able get a computer science degree in just three semesters of a doubled course load, started a computer games company, then switched to the field of personal development and achieved fabulous success with his blog and in his life.

It’s a good story but jeez, I’ve read a lot of these books and it can seem like the introductions are always the same. They’re like diet books, or business books. A person or organization falls on hard times and has a crisis. Maybe they were applying conventional advice, or they start to apply it, and it just doesn’t work. So they’re forced to reexamine their basic assumptions, do new research, arrive at a synthesis that is totally the bee’s knees, and now they’re presenting it to the public for the first time! As Steve puts it,

“I decided to tackle this problem head-on, doing something I’ve never seen done before. I set out to find a common pattern behind all successful growth efforts, to identify a complete set of core principles that would be universally applicable.” (emphasis mine)

It’s not that this is bad. They’re often good stories, and maybe it’s necessary to have such a story behind you before you start giving worthwhile advice. And Steve runs through the elements of this ur-story as well as anyone could. It’s just that, from Steve Pavlina, I was expecting something stranger and more compelling. And also, can he really believe that no one has done this before? That’s what all these writers do, they have all found the one true way that has eluded others.

But all of that is my problem, not his. My task is to read the book, try to understand and apply its ideas, and see what happens as a result.

Anyway, after two and a half years of effort, Steve arrives at a recognition that there are three core principles, truth, love and power, and four secondary principles, oneness, authority, courage, and intelligence. A triangular diagram (another common motif of self-help books) is used to illustrate the basic structure, and the rest of the book (which is in two parts) will use these principles as a basic organizing structure.

And incidentally, the Kindle version of Personal Development for Smart People is only $1.99 as I write this.

Next post: Truth!

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

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An Appreciation of Hikaru no Go

story by Yumi Hotta
art by Takeshi Obata
published by Shueisha

NOTE: There are a few spoilers in this essay.

For several years I have been a dilettante admirer of both graphic novels and the Asian board game go, so it is a little surprising that I only recently discovered Hikaru no Go, the manga which brings the two together so satisfyingly. I am really, really late to this party; Hikaru no Go, which debuted in the United States in 2004, is among the best selling manga of all time and fostered an unprecedented go boom—the go playing population in Japan is said to have tripled.

But first a word about go, the world’s oldest and most widely played board game. Yes, you read that right; though mostly invisible to Westerners, go has been played in China since at least the 3rd century BCE, and in Japan, China, Taiwan and, especially, Korea, go occupies a space much like that of professional tennis, with a similar arrangement of tournaments, associations, and supporting media. Hundreds of Asian pros (Western pros, like total badass Michael Redmond of California, are curiosities) make a living on tournament winnings and lessons. Like chess, it’s a two-player game of skill but go players, frankly, find it outrageous that chess is usually held (by Westerners) to be superior. Why, anyone should be able to see that this game of large-scale strategy and tactical infighting is by far the better game. In any event, go is a supreme mental sport and a superb (if geeky) backdrop for a manga aimed at young adults.

Now, our story: Hikaru Shindo, an entirely ordinary Japanese schoolboy, happens across an antique goban (go board) in his grandfather’s attic and, upon touching it, is abruptly possessed by the spirit of Fujiwara Sai, a superlative player of the Edo period whose passion for the game is such that it keeps him bound to this plane, seeking to play “The Divine Move” through the humans he possesses. The 23 volumes of Hikaru no Go (also an anime) explore their affectionate/combative relationship, and Hikaru’s consequent ascension in the world of Japanese go.

I’ll leave the plot outline and other basics to the excellent Wikipedia article; here, I’d like to briefly highlight some of the aspects of Hikaru no Go that elevate it, in my view, to the very highest ranks of YA fiction.

• Respect for the game: Go players will tell you that go is easy to learn, and has very few rules. And that’s true, so far as it goes (you’re just going to have to live with incidental puns). But despite the simplicity of the rules, go has a wicked steep learning curve and most new players give it up after a few tries and never discover the game’s beauty. High-level play is mind-crackingly hard and absolutely requires serious, systematic study. And, it is an extremely intellectual game with no element of luck. So it would not have been surprising if Ms. Hotta had avoided details of play and simply used games as a backdrop for a generic coming-of-age tale. Instead, she doubled down; Hikaru no Go is very nearly documentary in its exploration of the game and Japan’s insei system, which trains young players. All board positions shown (there are hundreds) are plausible (reviewed exhaustively by pros prior to publication), game outcomes are realistic for the level of the players involved, and high-level go concepts are used as plot points. You could learn to play from this manga.

For a contrast, consider Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, where go serves as a backdrop to several scenes involving the protagonist and his mentor. Here, the board positions are nonsense, are inconsistent from shot to shot, and game principles don’t affect the movie at all. Go is merely a bit of intellectual window dressing.

I guess I also want to compare Hikaru no Go, and it’s treatment of go, to the Harry Potter series and its treatment of magic. The fact is, J.K. Rowling gives magic short shrift; though the language she creates around spellwork is apt and evocative, and though the magic is wild and fun, it is not developed as a system. Basic questions are never addressed; why are invisibility cloaks so uncommon, for example, and why do some magical families live in Muggle-like poverty, when presumably they can magically produce whatever commodity they wish? By contrast, Hikaru’s gradual ascension to go superstardom is entirely realistic, while still making plausible use of the story’s supernatural elements (which don’t dominate the story, incidentally; Sai abruptly disappears about 2/3s of the way through the series). To be sure, Hikaru has an aptitude for go that is very like Harry’s aptitude for magic. But the grind and frustration required of talented insei (aspiring go professionals), the endless evenings spent studying, are perfectly evoked… and are nothing like the (admittedly wonderful) adventures of Hogwarts. I don’t say this to criticize, only to highlight different authorial strategies—in fact, it would be easy to draw parallels between these two long explorations of adolescence, and fans of one will enjoy the other.

I consider this an outstanding strength of Hikaru no Go, but I suppose it also a weakness, at least in the United States; we Americans are not known for obsessive love of Asian board games.

• Respect for work: Since Hikaru is training to be a professional, learning go is also his entry into the world of work and money, and he enters it as a rival to established adults. The rivalry is fierce, sharp, and unusually explicit; in several memorable scenes older players use every trick they know to mentally crush adolescent players, some of whom are their own students! Gambling is a persistent theme, and the need for money is frankly addressed. Failure is a specter that haunts all the young insei; you only rise in the system by defeating others… others that are also friends.

And go talent gives young players a marvelous entry into go salons, where they are on equal, or more than equal, footing with adults… and even bet with them. Many of my favorite passages take place in salons, where young insei learn to compete mercilessly and keep their composure. I was reminded of the midshipmen in Patrick O’Brian’s sea tales, young teenagers ordering men about in wartime and maturing in a single voyage. I suspect that the equal competition with adults, for real stakes, is one explanation of Hikaru no Go‘s amazing popularity.

• Character development over time: Hikaru no Go is primarily a tale of growing up, in which the world of go serves as a comprehensible microcosm of the larger world. As near as I can tell, Hikaru ages from roughly 13 to 19 in the series and the way he is drawn reflects this. He begins as brash and feckless, and ends as a competent, insightful young adult. Many characters make similar transitions, and there are some failures—children who somehow don’t thrive.

Don’t guess I have much to say here, just want to acknowledge one of this manga’s great strengths. Realistic personal growth over time is one of the most difficult of authorial sleights, and Ms. Hotta’s accomplishment (along with the finely paced depiction by Obata) is significant.

• Superb art: Since I am not a manga aficionado, I have no idea if the art of Hikaru no Go is exceptionally superb, or merely a good example of ordinary high standards. At any rate, I was impressed. Thousands of crisp, realistic scenes, easily recognizable characters that change consistently over time, a strong sense of place, the occasional effective use of cruder comic styles (e.g, for slapstick humor scenes), precise font choices… like any good comic book, the art is an excellent complement to an exciting story, and Mr. Obata (and his studio, I gather) deploys his considerable skills to excellent effect.

• Adolescent Sexuality: Will we, nil we, the classics of young adult literature will always have strong sexual undertones, just as adolescence itself has strong sexual undertones. The easy example is the Harry-Hermione-Ron triangle that enthralls millions. Hikaru no Go‘s depiction is a bit unusual in two ways: it is unusually circumspect in its treatment of adolescent yearning, and it seems to focus on boy crushes, the confused feelings that young adolescent males have for each other. Let me explain.

By circumspect, I mean that there is almost no actual dating, or discussion of dating or crushes, or school dances, or love notes, or confused assignations… none of that. In 23 volumes, there is only one scene that suggests people in this world have sex—a young go professional leaves his mistress’s apartment (and treats her rather brusquely). And also, it is made clear that one of Hikaru’s classmates has a crush on him; this is not developed in any way. And that really is it for overt romanticism.

Also, it must be said, women do not really figure in Hikaru no Go: they are, almost without exception, smiling non-entities. So basically, no overt sexuality or romanticism whatsoever.

But on the other hand, the young men… so beautiful. Lovingly drawn, very handsome (considerably more handsome, sadly, than actual go professionals), as dashing as young samurai, the quarreling boys of Hikaru no Go make up for the absence of women by carrying out rivalries and jealousies, friendships and furious defenses of each other, coded invitations and, really, all of the interpersonal romantic exchange one looks for in, say, a Jane Austen novel. The very heart of the novel is the go rivalry between Hikaru and Akira Toya, which is an intense and barely sublimated boy crush playing out in the heady atmosphere that attends go prodigies in a nation that has revered the game—and sanctified legendary players—for several centuries. Not to mention that Fujiwara Sai, the possessing spirit of go genius, is intensely feminine in appearance and manner—anima, anyone?

A complete absence of overt sexuality, disregard for girls, and intense, confused attractions between young males expressed in competition. I must say, it captures the very spirit of a portion of my youth.

So if you are looking for an expertly observed coming of age tale, or a ‘buddy movie,’ or a sports rivalry, or a go documentary, or a ghost story, or a beautiful visual experience, or simply a good read, you can hardly go wrong with Hikaru no Go.

Life, the Nature of Order, and Everything

This review was challenging to write. To summarize 1,100 pages or so in a few thousand words is never easy, especially when the 1,100 pages make such good use of photos and sketches. But I also felt a bit of missionary zeal—I really believe that Alexander’s ideas are incredibly important.

In a previous essay (not on this blog), I briefly profiled architect Christopher Alexander and alluded to his magnum opus, the four book Nature of Order. In this essay, I’ll be reviewing the first two books of the set, The Phenomenon of Life (TPoL) and The Process of Creating Life (PoCL). The prominence of the word life highlights the importance of this concept in Alexander’s thinking. For him, life is a quality inherent in all things, not solely a property of plants and animals. This is not a particularly radical belief. It’s a tenet of Buddhism and Taoism, and is beginning to find adherents among some scientists. The thing is, it’s hard to define life in a way that includes creatures like animals and insects, but excludes things like crystals or complex computer programs. Viruses are a good example of the difficulty; are they intricate crystals that self replicate in certain animals, or are they living beings in their own right? Ask a biologist sometime, and see what he says.

In any event, Alexander defines life very broadly, and believes that it exists in the world around us in varying degrees.

So, right away, we find that he is tackling some big questions: What is Life? What is Space? What is the Nature of Order? These are questions that occupy mystics, and there are some who see Alexander that way. I don’t. He is too practical and hardworking, and he is not too concerned with individual spirituality; his focus is on reforming the built environment but, yes, he addresses… spirit.

Spirit is always threatening to disrupt our lives

I wish I could talk about Christopher Alexander without getting into questions about the meaning of life, but it’s no use; the man continually and infuriatingly will point out the 600 pound gorilla in the room that we’re all trying to ignore – humans are spiritual beings, and the world is a spiritual place. We make demands on our buildings that aren’t satisfied by profit and efficiency. That we so successfully avoid this reality so much of the time explains much, Alexander contends, about the often unsatisfactory nature of the world we’ve made for ourselves.

Spirit is always threatening to disrupt our lives; seen in a certain light, the bureaucratization of our society’s large institutions seems designed to prevent such troubling eruptions—see Franz Kafka, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Moore, et al. It is axiomatic that no priest wants a saint in his parish, but then, neither does the mayor, or the factory owner.

Alexander points out that structure, too, can work against human wholeness and spirituality and this seems logical enough. After all, no one leaves nature to get ‘back to the city’ when seeking peace and enlightenment. Continue reading “Life, the Nature of Order, and Everything”

Vance, Not Tolkien

Sigh. Why does it always fall to me to correct the supposed experts?

Even before George R.R. Martin‘s seriously excellent series A Song of Ice and Fire (of which Game of Thrones is the first book) was turned into an equally excellent HBO show, it was already a big deal among fantasy readers. And it’s gratifying—to those of us who have been fans for years—that word is now getting out to a larger audience. But there is one critic’s trope that I find grating, and that’s the contention that Martin is ‘The American Tolkien.’ In fact, the comparison is not fair to either writer. For one thing, they’re not really working in the same genre; Tolkien wrote what I would call High Fantasy, a sort of conscious myth creation, and Martin is writing what has been aptly called ‘Realpolitik Fantasy,’ where plot and characters are driven by all-too-human motivations. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Lord of the Rings actually having sex, and in ASOF readers are always aware of this, and other, ever-present basic urges.

Moreover, there is a far better comparison to be made, between ASOIAF and Jack Vance’s Lyonesse, a cult classic if ever there was such a thing.

Lyonesse is everything that ASOIAF is, writ slightly smaller. It too is set in a fantasy world something like our own. Like Westeros, Lyonesse is human-centric, with fantasy elements (like magick and dragons) that are compelling but not the whole story. Characters lust for power, money, and sex, and in them we easily see our neighbors, lovers, and bosses. Of the two series, Martin’s is clearly the greater: it’s bigger in every way, explores larger themes, and rises above genre to become great literature by any reckoning. But Lyonesse is, mayhaps, the sprightlier read and I, for one, love it no less.

All of which is by way of saying—if you like anything about Game of Thrones, be sure to give Lyonesse a try. Or anything by Vance; he was astonishingly prolific, and once you have read him you will see his influence everywhere.

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Seven Books That Undermine Reality

Of course, if you ask me some other day, you’ll get another seven entirely…

Remember, Be Here Now, by Ram Dass

Even on the increasingly rare occasions that Timothy Leary’s LSD-popularizing antics are really discussed, the man known then as Richard Alpert appears as little more than a sidekick—Robin, to Leary’s Dark Knight—and his book, Be Here Now, a mere punch line to a forgotten 60s joke. But in the decades since, with Leary’s needle stuck at ‘groovy’ right up until his relatively early death, Alpert’s fully disclosed spiritual struggles, his open record of extreme growth and change, and of course his transformation into America’s own guru, Ram Dass, have left him, perhaps, the greater figure. By any reckoning, he is a scarred and worthy chronicler of a numinous time, and an interesting living experiment that still unfolds.

I had the good fortune to be handed Be Here Now in the midst of one of my very first acid trips, when I was still convinced that there was meaning beneath all the fireworks. I puzzled over it quite happily for hours, imprinted on it, and it has affected my subsequent spiritual life as surely as childhood religious instruction; and like childhood religious instruction, the influence has not always been positive and shaped me by my resistance at least as much as by my acquiescence. For example I, for far too many years, accorded Hindu-flavored spirituality far more respect than I now feel it deserves.

It is a concise classic of drug writing, a genre that deserves more respect than it gets

Be Here Now is actually three books in one. The introduction is Alpert’s tale of the years with Leary, his travels in India, and the encounters with the fabulous guru, Neem Karoli Baba, that remade Alpert as Ram Dass. It is a concise classic of drug writing, a genre that deserves more respect than it gets. The middle, longest, section is a hand lettered and illuminated attempt to convey, experientially, certain verities of the psychedelic experience. It is strange, strangely powerful, and I am not able to capture it in a net of mere words—take strong hallucinogens (or, if you prefer, entheogens) and read it for yourself. And finally, the book concludes with an adequate primer of the aforementioned Hindu-flavored spirituality—meditation, yoga, veganism, etc.—the efficacy of which is demonstrated by the easy competence with which India governs herself and cares for her people. Am I too cynical? Very well, paw through this section yourself and carry away the bits you find shiny… that’s certainly what I did, and I can’t say I regret it.

Separately, none of these parts is indispensable, but like the disparate, ridiculous books of the Bible (have you ever read the Book of Jonah?) when gathered together (along with an excellent bibliography) they amount to scripture. And, like scripture, they can remake your world to the extent you let them.

Alpert/Dass is, it must be said, a substantial spiritual fuck up, but I will always love him for this book, and for the way he once compared the way he figuratively fell on his face over and over to a man making his way to a holy city by means of continual prostrations—it was too apt a description of my own life to ever forget.

Promethea, by Alan Moore

Alan Moore is a literary titan whose medium happens to be comic books: deal with it. The fact is, Moore is positively Joycean in the way he packs layers of meaning into words and, unlike Joyce—or Pynchon, or Wallace—he has the whole playground of image to play with as well.

The substantial success Moore attained with his scripts for Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, and other titles—and the substantial disappointments he suffered as those graphic masterpieces were translated to the screen—both allowed him and drove him to focus on more insular, idiosyncratic work… one can almost hear him muttering, ‘make a movie of this you effing bastards,’ as he completed his pornographic masterwork Lost Girls, or the swirl of Cabala, sex magick, metaphysics, and superhero mythology comprising the work I extol here, Promethea.

Available in five volumes that collect the original comics, the spine of Promethea is conventional for the costumed vigilante genre: a young lady, Sophia Bangs (pay attention to those names, reader) finds herself blessed/cursed with the ability to transform herself into the curvaceous superheroine Promethea, who is able to fly, shoot beams of force from her caduceus, and so forth. In coming to terms with her new powers, she meets and beats assorted villains, and ushers in the end of the world.

Wait; what was that last part? End of the world? It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you so—from early on in Book One it’s clear that Promethea’s world faces the end of history.

But not by nuclear annihilation, as in Watchmen, but by Armageddon, Kali Yuga, Ragnarök, or some other name drawn from the end time theologies so often found in human spiritual systems. In her quest to understand her role as Destroyer, Sophie/Promethea thoroughly explores the Western esoteric tradition.

In his personal life, Moore is an accomplished ceremonial magickian and here, like Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, he uses an exciting, bawdy, page-turning tale to sugarcoat serious philosophical instruction. The attentive reader will come away from Promethea with a useful grounding in tarot, cabala and the tree of life, Crowleyan ritual, and will even get an intriguing and accurate glimpse of Goetic demonology.

More importantly, by reading this book and letting it’s glorious graphics seduce you, you will imbibe a certain mindset and realize at gut level that what we are pleased to call reality is merely an insubstantial scrim imperfectly concealing the actual nature of existence. And as Sophie—and her entire world—are forced to acknowledge, confronting an unveiled all-that-is is both terrifying… and thrilling.

Travels, by Michael Crichton

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but the fact is, I like Michael Crichton’s novels and have read most of them. And of course, I’m not alone in that—Crichton’s books have sold 150 million copies worldwide. But relatively few have read Travels, which makes sense because it’s pretty much the opposite of a ‘Crichton book’. It’s short not long, it’s a memoir not thriller fiction, and it’s written in a graceful, unaffected voice, not the thudding, heart-pounding! thriller prose that Crichton mastered long before writers like Dan Brown or David Baldacci began to hammer readers over the head with it. I think he missed his audience with this one; Travels is not for the average thriller reader.

As you might guess from the title, Crichton is here writing a travel memoir but, crucially, he includes inner journeys as well. Beginning with his experiences as a 6’9” medical student who put himself through medical school writing potboilers—and the The Andromeda Strain—and continuing with multiple world trips, and his experiences meditating, directing movies, learning to see auras, tripping intensely, bending spoons, diving with sharks, etc. etc. His clear exposition of the events experienced and of his own mental state while they unfolded is what makes Travels remarkable. Also, his motivation for writing Travels is unimpeachable; he certainly didn’t need the money, and must have known that this book wouldn’t make him much anyway. Nor would it exactly burnish his reputation… the questing, skeptical-but-believing Michael Crichton on display in Travels is not the Michael Crichton he would want Hollywood agents to negotiate with.

So ultimately, Travels is immensely credible. Crichton tells me that he learned to bend spoons one evening, and I believe him. He tells me that a weekend workshop gave him the gift of seeing auras, and I start looking for such a workshop to attend myself…

And thus is reality undermined.

His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

Just to get it out of the way, yes, these are Young Adult novels. And they’re based on Milton’s Paradise Lost… or so I’m told. But so what?—we must take wisdom where we find it, and in the three books of His Dark MaterialsThe Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman is not only wise, but brave, taking on, as he does, conventional religious thinking in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Most reviews of His Dark Materials focus on daemons, the animal-guised, familiar-like soul analogues that Pullman brilliantly fishes up from exceedingly deep archetypal waters and, yes, daemons are cool but for my money even more attention should be paid to his frankly anti-church agenda; read at the cusp of adolescence, these books will effectively immunize against excessive religiosity. I read them when I was struggling with my own religious addictions—I’m a recovering fundamentalist—and they were the kick in the ass I needed to actually change.

None of this would matter if Pullman was preachy or didactic, but fortunately—and unlike myself—he is neither. Instead, he couches his serious life lessons in a compulsively readable coming-of-age tale, set against a backdrop of witches, armored bears, dirigibles, and passages between worlds. As you are pulled from page to page, you will also be reordering your views on spiritual expression… so read with care.

My Life With the Spirits, by Lon Milo Duquette

Though I have cast spells, performed sex magick rituals, and worshipped my patron goddess Ostara under a full moon at Summer Solstice, the fact is I am a dilettante, not a practicing magickian. But even an armchair magickian must read astonishing quantities of written material, for surely it is the wordiest of hobbies, with tome after tome devoted to the arcana of divination, cabala, Crowleyan ritual, chaos magick, Enochian scrying, and so forth and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. And in all this vast, mostly fascinating, swamp of literature there is one writer, Lon Milo Duquette, who stands apart because he sees himself with without illusion, and because he writes with exceptional clarity, self-deprecation, and humor.

His Chicken Qabalah is a useful and lucid explication of how and why a non-Jew might explore Cabala for spiritual purposes, Angels, Demons & Gods of the New Millennium is a perfectly acceptable primer for those interested in Western ceremonial magick, and should you decide to flirt with high strangeness and engage the Beast directly, you can have no better Virgil than Duquette in his books, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, The Magick of Aleister Crowley: A Handbook of the Rituals of Thelema, and Aleister Crowley’s Illustrated Goetia: Sexual Evocation.

But before you read any of these (and even if you have no intention to read these, or any, books on magick) read My Life With The Spirits: The Adventures of a Modern Magician. Like three other books on this list, it is a memoir of alternative spirituality. Conventionally autobiographical, My Life With The Spirits follows Duquette from early childhood through delightfully rock-and-roll-and-magick infused hippie years, and into an adulthood as a sober and respected bishop of the Ordo Templi Orientis. Like all my favorite people, Duquette has a zest for direct experience and he exuberantly dives into yoga, communal life, magickal ritual, and whatever else captures his interest. And he writes up his experiences with the brio and humility that I associate with truth telling. His tales of Goetic evocation, for example, are masterpieces of immersion journalism: accurate, frightening, and funny.

Duquette’s writings undermine my grasp on conventional reality because they have the ring of truth. Based on my own (relatively trivial) magickal experimentation and his clear reporting, I am forced to accept that demons (and angels) are real and can act on our plane, that Enochian calls effectively summon visions of another world, and that a dead kitten can, under the influence of the right prana master, be restored to life.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Duquette’s oeuvre is his attitude of, if you will, ‘dogmatic agnosticism’. He doesn’t insist that you believe him, doesn’t attempt to convert, and freely concedes that everything unusual that he experiences may well be ‘all in his head’. “But,” he continues (a little dogmatically), “you have no idea how big your head is!”

Living With Joy, by Sanaya Roman

I didn’t set out to become a fan of channeled material, and I can’t tell you how I came across Living with Joy: Keys to Personal Power and Spiritual Transformation, but in the six or so years that have passed since I abandoned fundamentalist Christianity no genre of literature has affected me more profoundly. Seth, I confess, is too intellectual for me, but Abraham and sometimes Kryon move me profoundly. And though he has a relatively small following—bad PR?—the entity who styles himself Oren, channeled by Sanaya Roman, has gradually and completely upended my world view, and Living with Joy is my bedside scripture.

There may be more to this world view than I am able to express, or I may be distorting it—I’ve been forced to admit in recent years that I am able to grasp only a small fraction of the data presented to me—but here is some of what I have gleaned:

• The all-that-is actively engages with individuals, reshaping itself to conform to an individual’s basic beliefs and expectations about reality. The all-that-is is like a nervous new lover, eager to conform to the beloved’s illusions.

• Our basic beliefs and expectations about reality are entirely within our control. Which is to say, the suite of beliefs we use to order and understand the all-that-is are choices, not understandings or deductions or inevitabilities. Likewise, we are free to expect whatever we like. Note: this is not to say that we control the all-that-is. It is more as if the all-that-is is an agreeable maestro, presenting itself in a way that is consonant with the observer’s disposition. But even so, certain verities persist, which is why day-to-day reality does not shift instantly to accommodate our fancies, as in a lucid dream.

• This being the case, it makes sense to deliberately choose our beliefs and shape our expectations so that we gradually create the most enjoyable life possible. We can also, incidentally, change our pasts by deliberately reinterpreting our memories.

• There are myriad techniques that accomplish this restructuring: prayer, spells, visualizations, drugs, ritual, are just a few effective examples. Different entities tend to focus on different techniques.

• You can start now.

By dipping into Living with Joy regularly, my thinking has gradually taken on this world view. I now pay attention to the tenor of my thoughts, state my goals in positive language, assume responsibility for my circumstances, etc., etc. And consequently, reality is now different for me. Delightful synchronicities abound, I live in freedom, experience joy, and no longer feel that I am a victim in a hostile environment. My fundamental belief about the way the world works is that the all-that-is is a wish granting machine, and that it dances with me every day.

Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson

I didn’t realize until compiling this list that I have read a lot of spiritual memoirs, and have been largely remade in their image. None have affected me more profoundly than Robert Anton Wilson’s (PBUH) Cosmic Trigger I : Final Secret of the Illuminati, the essential first volume of his three volume autobiography.

For me it has always been books, not teachers, that appeared when I was ready, and Cosmic Trigger showed up when I first decided in my heart—where it mattered—that I could no longer abide the fundamentalist Christian cult I had faithfully espoused for the first 17 years of my adult life. I knew others who had left what I was then pleased to call, “The Truth.” Some were always sad or bitter, some fairly groveled in their efforts to reinstate themselves, some gave themselves over to unattractive dissipation, and at least one—a smart fellow, like me—was dead of suicide. I didn’t know of any, at the time, who had made a success of their heresy and infidelity, none who had attained the happy, creative heathenism that I so craved.

Cosmic Trigger broke me open like a thunderbolt, like the divine bolt of lightning that is seen in the tarot’s Tower card, redefining an individual existence. It was Wilson’s contention that we all live in “reality tunnels,” self-manufactured existences made up of our beliefs, hopes, and fears about the way things ‘really’ are. Had he said only this, it would have been enough, for just the phrase and his explication gave me a way to understand and work with the morbid eschatology I had lived within for so long.

But Wilson went further, describing his experiments with “rapid brain change.” In his efforts to overcome a “normal” Catholic upbringing (and parenthetically, I have always found it fascinating that so many interesting writers have Catholic school in their past—might the need to assert themselves early against an ancient propaganda set them on the road to literature?) Wilson deliberately made use of the brutal shocks to consciousness available via psychedelic drugs, taboo violation, ceremonial (especially Crowleyan) magick, the books of James Joyce, Sufi exercises, and the like. And by writing constantly and surrounding himself with a good wife and good friends, he managed to integrate the inrush of change that resulted and ended up—at least by his own estimation—a happier and saner man.

I copied him. I ingested LSD and psilocybin and salvia divinorum and lots of pot, I donned ceremonial garb and performed pagan rites, and I attended Sufi dances. And I found my own way, as well; since the cult to which I had formerly been faithful especially reviled tobacco and tarot, I bought myself some fine cigars and learned to smoke them while laying out a Celtic cross, and since I had so repetitiously heard that the Boss of all-that-is hates extramarital sex I made sure to have some ASAP. And I’ve done other things, too, meditations and visualizations, group sex and odd sex, sought out strange places and strange companions, and through it all I wrote constantly and surrounded myself with good friends… the wives came and went. And of course I had the guidance of Wilson himself, via his many books, and I have to say that at the end of it all I am—by my own estimation—a happier and saner man.

Cosmic Trigger is, of course, more than an extreme self help program. Wilson’s thoughts on personas, for example, are revelatory and his insights into the writer’s life remain a guide for me. Most of all, he tells his tales of an interesting life and philosophy in the whiskey-warmed, unpretentious voice of an ideal barstool companion.

Buy it, read it, live it. You have nothing to lose but all your illusions.

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An Interview With Craig Childs

About two years ago I recorded an interview with writer and extreme traveler (and personal friend) Craig Childs that focused on his recently released book, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. The interview first played on KVNF in Colorado, and was subsequently picked up and played on PRX. I was very happy with the way it came out, and if you like you can listen to it here.

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