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 Materials—The 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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