Category Archives: Book Review

The Sublime Transformation of Vera Wright by Rea Nolan Martin

 Vera

What if your neighbor was a saint? This was the question Rea Nolan Martin asked herself in creating this masterpiece of visionary fiction. Her main character, Vera Wright, qualifies for the senior discount, but is still working as a beautician. She has a grown daughter and a teddy bear of a husband, living a normal life. Then one day, her parish priest asks the congregation to invite God into their lives. Vera does and that’s when everything starts to change.

I was fully caught up in Vera’s reluctant spiritual journey. More than once I wondered how I’d react if some of the things that Vera experienced happened to me. Remember in the stories of saints, the path to enlightenment is not an easy one. Vera is continuously challenged on her road to God. Unexpected twists and turns occur. Vera navigates some of them beautifully and some not. She is after all, human. Vera’s job is to awaken to her inner divinity and that awakening has her question the role of the feminine in Catholicism.

The story of Vera’s transformation might be heavy except that the author has interjected copious amounts of humor into the mix. Vera is the saint next door and we are no longer free to relegate holiness to the past. Might we not come across a saint in our own lives? Who is that waiting on us at the Post Office? Who is that old man feeding the ducks at the pond? The child reaching for the cookie? This book is a mind-opening adventure. Don’t miss it!

http://www.amazon.com/Sublime-Transformation-Vera-Wright-ebook/dp/B009NNHP9O/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438279529&sr=1-3&keywords=Rea+Nolan+Martin#customerReviews

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ASTROLOGY AND THE RISING OF KUNDALINI- Barbara Hand Clow

Clow

In 1991, Barbara Hand Clow posited a theory in which planetary cycles could be used to predict the onset,progress, and completion of certain transformative growth cycles. The most powerful of these occurs at mid-life (early 40s) and can viewed as spiritual emergency. Her earlier work has been updated and re-released as Astrology and the Rising of Kundalini.

I was really intrigued when I learned my own crisis occurred within the predictable parameters and how my experience can be seen as a classic case of kundalini rise. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have this book about ten years ago when it would have been so informative and comforting!

Ptolemaicsystem-smallClow insists that everyone undergoes a rise in kundalini energy according to the movement of Uranus in a person’s chart. This rise triggers mid-life crisis. Mid-life crisis does seem to be a fairly common experience but we all know people who sail through life seemingly immune to life’s ups and downs. Certainly not everyone goes through spiritual crisis. Regardless, the information is very pertinent to the spiritual seeker and this is where it can be most useful.

The key astrological transitions to look at are the first Saturn return (age 30), Uranus opposition to the natal chart (ages 38-44), and the return of Chiron (age 50). The exact dates are given on charts in the back of the book. It’s interesting to try to look back and remember what was going on at each time. All of the dates held some significance for me. In addition, the key wounding dates for Chiron were also significant, but oddly enough, I wouldn’t say they were my worst wounds. This trend continued with my husband and son who could sometimes recall incidents connected to their dates, but also felt they were not the most significant ones they’ve experienced.

DiagrammaChakraKundaliniThere is much to ponder over reading this book. It should be required reading BEFORE mid-life, especially for the spiritually-minded. Anyone going through spiritual crisis will find some practical help to treat the symptoms and comfort knowing it will settle down (eventually). The material is presented in lively way with real life examples. No prior knowledge of astrology or the kundalini phenomena is necessary. All the charts needed to do your own analysis are included.

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SATAN TAKES A CONVENT

THE DEVILS OF LOUDON by Aldous Huxley

devils

I’m not sure how I came across this book, but the blurb on Amazon was enough to have me seek out a non-fiction book written in 1952. Huxley takes on the strange case of possession of eighteen nuns in the small French village of Loudon in 1632. The village priest is a lothario who makes the wrong enemies and is burned at the stake for it. The book combines The Exorcist with the hysteria of the Salem witch trials.

Father Urbain Grandier was undoubtedly a scoundrel who seduced many village women, eventually impregnating a well-respected merchant’s daughter. He quickly makes powerful enemies including the famous Cardinal Richelieu. When all legal attempts to hold Grandier accountable fail, the locals bide their time. Soon on the scene is the young Sister Jeanne who has authority as prioress over seventeen impressionable Ursuline nuns. Jeanne has come to the Church by default rather than any spiritual calling. Hearing stories about the handsome, bad-boy Grandier, she develops elaborate romantic fantasies.

Urbain Grandier

Urbain Grandier

When her attempts to get the Father to act as confessor for the nuns fails, she is more than a little disappointed. With encouragement from some of Grandier’s enemies, it’s not long before the nuns are displaying signs of demonic possession. Grandier thinks he’s safe because he has never been in the convent. Not so! God isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways. Exorcists are brought in and the nuns perfect their techniques and the hysteria gains momentum. Eventually, all of France learn about the diabolical happenings at Loudon as the nuns are exorcized before public gatherings (which becomes very profitable for the convent). Although many in the Church don’t think Father Grandier is in league with the devil, he is put on trial, found guilty, and publicly burned.

Evidence against Grandier at trial, 1634. A signed, diabolical pact written backwards.

Evidence against Grandier at trial, 1634. A signed, diabolical pact written backwards.

Unfortunately for the nuns (well, maybe not), the devil is not sent packing with Grandier’s death. With traditional exorcism failing, a Jesuit priest arrives with a new idea. Instead of casting out the demons, he will work with the prioress eliminating her sins and making her a model of Christian virtue where the devil cannot hold sway. Unlike Grandier, Father Surin is sincere in his calling. With a strong mystical bent, Surin believes all the phenomena manifesting in the convent is the work of the devil and he fully believes he can take Satan on.

What Surin doesn’t know is that the prioress has been putting on a show all along and that she has no desire to give up the attention she has garnered. Instead, she takes up the quest to be holy by starting to act as if she were the next St. Theresa of Avila (a noted mystic who Jeanne had studied before coming to Loudon). Now instead of contorting her body on the floor and screaming obscenities, Jeanne begins to create miracles. The transition of demoniac to saint happens as Father Surin physically takes on the demons Jeanne sheds. The prioress eventually bears the stigmata of holy names on her arm and produces a chemise bearing holy drops of scent. Poor Father Surin’s health declines and he goes mad. The Prioress takes to the road exhibiting her miracles in front of thousands as she travels through France. She meets Cardinal Richelieu, and the King and Queen of France. The holy chemise is even draped over the Queen’s abdomen during the birth of Louis XIV. After that, Jeanne returns to the convent and lives out her life. Father Surin struggles for years believing that God has condemned him to hell. Late in life, he regains some lucidity and is able to write and preach again.

Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun, 1661

Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun, 1661

Written in the 1950s, the book isn’t the easiest of reads. There are long digressions on side topics and discussions of the mystical the average reader would be unfamiliar with. Strangely enough, there are long passages and poetry in French which are not translated. However, quotes in Latin are so you can get a glimpse of the rituals performed. Huxley was convinced that this story is as pertinent today as it was at the time it happened. Those human frailties that made Loudon possible are still with us. Lust, greed, revenge, self-centeredness, and the quest for power remain modern vices.

This week’s moment of synchronicity: a new article connecting Huxley’s work to modern mass hysteria events (especially in girls & young women).

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/29/carol-morley-the-falling-mass-hysteria-is-a-powerful-group-activity

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Spiritual/Mysticism, Spooky stuff

DO YOU SEE THAT?

   HALLUCINATIONS by Oliver Sacks

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I used to think hallucinations were associated with a particular kind of person- someone who would stand out in a crowd- someone who would need … medication. But that’s not wholly true. I suffer with migraines and, on occasion, I have aura in the classical fortification pattern (those zigzag lines). These are visual hallucinations. So on another level, I know hallucinations can affect many who wouldn’t stand out in a room or need medication.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is a fascinating book because it reveals the diversity found in the human experience. Forget what you thought “normal” meant. It won’t be useful anymore. Turns out, there are many perfectly happy, functional people who have hallucinations.

Photo: Erik Charlton

Photo: Erik Charlton

So what do we mean by a hallucination? Different definitions have been used throughout history. Even today there is confusion over exactly what a hallucination is, because the boundary between hallucinations, misperception, and illusion aren’t always clear. Sacks begins with the idea that a hallucination lacks external reality. (Keep in mind that for a Buddhist, we slipped into nebulous territory by assuming an external reality independent, discrete, and concrete.) Anyway, seeing or hearing (also tasting, feeling, or smelling) things that are not there will qualify as a hallucination for the book’s purposes. Hallucinations appear real to the one experiencing it because the perceptions are fully working to create that reality and project it into the world. This is different from a memory or the use of the imagination where, in the mind’s eye, both are experienced. Hallucinations are further characterized by being involuntary, uncontrollable, and often possessing color or detail beyond everyday average experience. Brain imaging now allows scientists the ability to monitor electrical and metabolic activity while someone is hallucinating.

Photo: Jens Maus

Photo: Jens Maus

Sacks chose to avoid any analysis of dreams (although he does cover those hallucinations experienced upon falling asleep or waking up ) and the subject of schizophrenia. He does hint at the level of stigma associated with seeing (or hearing) things and how patients will not disclose this is occurring. Oftentimes, people will avoid using the term hallucinating and call it other things. Modern society equates hallucinations with insanity. Sacks cites a 1974 case published in Science where eight healthy pseudo-patients presented themselves at various hospitals complaining about hearing voices. Seven were immediately diagnosed as schizophrenic without any other symptoms. The other one was diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis.

The book takes up the breadth of human experience in which people have hallucinations due to medical conditions and drug use (both prescribed and recreational). There are many first person accounts given in the book. They are all candid and insightful, and open the opportunity to grow our compassion. Some of the medical conditions discussed are Charles Bonnet Syndrome (blindness), deafness, Parkinson’s, migraine, epilepsy, PTSD, and delirium. Various injuries, sensory deprivation, sleep disorders, and grief may also bring on hallucinations. Although the chapters on out-of-body, near-death-experience, and ghosts are interesting, I disagree that science has a full explanation to offer us. From Sacks’ point of view, all mystical experience probably would also count as a hallucination. Again, a limited view.

This is a very informative and enlightening book, sharing what in many cases individuals are afraid to share with the general public and their doctors (for good reason, apparently). It does much to decrease the stigma associated with hallucinations and enlarges our understanding of the range of what it means to have a human body with human perception.

Oliver Sacks: TED TALK- Hallucinations

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Filed under Book Review, Books, brain science, dreams, health, hypnogogic dreams, hypnopompic dreams, schizophrenia

THE VISITORS by Sally Beauman

Photo: Steve Evans

Photo: Steve Evans

The 70s were a long time ago, but reading The Visitors took me back to the time when Tutmania ruled. I remember seeing the exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with record crowds. The golden mask of the king glittered looking new. So did the statuary, jewelry, and crisp decorative paintings. Ten years of careful excavation and restoration accomplished by Howard Carter and his team ensured the 1923 find would be preserved.

Visitors

Sally Beauman takes us back to that time with the story of a young British heiress named Lucy. After suffering the loss of her mother and recovering from an illness, Lucy travels to Egypt where she befriends the daughter of an Egyptologist. This allows her access to the exciting world of excavation in the Valley of the Kings just prior to the discovery of Tut’s tomb. Lucy meets Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, and many of the other players in the upcoming historical find. We glimpse aristocratic society in the colonial period, the politics of the fight for Egyptian independence, the conflict over ownership of artifacts, and the obsession of the two men who desperately wanted to make names for themselves. Throw in the fictional murder of a free-spirited heiress and Beauman’s book is a thrilling read. Unfortunately, this is a book where the author lost control of the story. For some reason, she felt compelled to keep writing allowing Lucy to grow up, marry, divorce, and live a mostly tragic existence. Read the book for the first 300 pages and skip the more than 200 pages that follow.

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THE LOST SECRET OF IMMORTALITY by Barclay Powers

Lost Secrets

I’ve been taking some classes on a particular branch of Gnosticism and went in search of a book to help me see “the forest through the trees.” Certain things that were being taught on the transmutation of energy and enlightenment started to feel restrictive and I wondered how other spiritual traditions approached the subject. Author Barclay Powers has a BS in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and has studied meditation, yoga, and martial arts for over thirty years. His book allowed me to gaze across several Eastern traditions while confirming almost everything Gnosticism outlined.

Photo: Mark Donoher

Photo: Mark Donoher

Once upon a time, the secrets of the East were tightly restricted to advanced followers of personal lineages. That has all changed with new translations of ancient texts and a proliferation of skilled teachers. The internet itself can even act as a guru. Ancient wisdom is available from India, China, Egypt, Tibet, Japan, and eastern and western alchemy. Powers sees a paradigm shift coming. Science is now looking at states of mind through brain imaging and he feels science will eventually look at the phenomena of the “rainbow body”* (the dissolving of the body into pure energy). When that happens, the world has the potential to change and manifest the best of humanity resulting in a global Bodhisattva* civilization.

 

Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Photo: Dennis Jarvis

 

As we wait for science to catch up, individual practitioners all over the world are taking up techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, gi gong, kundalini awakening, and the internal martial arts. All of the methods begin in the body and ultimately unite the body, soul, and spirit. Instead of a psychological transformation, Powers is talking about a physiological process that spans traditions. The ultimate freedom of enlightenment is found when the individual transcends birth and death, as well as time and space. The bulk of the book is devoted to examining Indian (Kundalini), Chinese (Tao), and Tibetan (Tantra) teachings for their similarities of energetic enlightenment. This was a good book for getting an overview of the systems of enlightenment. I enjoyed learning more about Taoist philosophy and the difference between the internal and external martial arts. The book could be expanded to include more about western mysticism and the Kabbalah, but those are not Powers’ areas of expertise. This is probably not a book for someone without burning questions about the nature of reality and enlightenment. For the novice, these practices will, at times, be shocking. They are meant to be having spent a millennia being well guarded by the masters of many traditions.

Photo: Joe Mabel

Photo: Joe Mabel

*Rainbow body- a phenomena well-recorded in the East, especially when a great spiritual teacher dies

*Bodhisattva- someone who postpones full Enlightenment to return to help others: the ultimate expression of compassion

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Buddhism, Spiritual/Mysticism, Uncategorized

CAN MYSTICISM BE PRACTICAL?

Photoevelyn3

Evelyn Underhill asked this question of herself one hundred years ago on the eve of the outbreak of The Great War. Oddly enough reading her book titled Practical Mysticism, I’m struck with how current it is. Her arguments against materialism and self- interest are as pertinent today as they were in 1914. And how strange it is to be reading her work at a time when the US appears to be on the verge of expanding the war on terror. This is the case especially when you consider how at the end of WW I, the victorious sliced, diced, and built nations in the Middle East which are root causes of today’s issues.

book

Evelyn Underhill is considered an authority on Christian mysticism having spent a lifetime researching, exploring, experiencing, and writing about it. For her, mysticism is defined as the art of union with reality. Notice the absence of the G- word. In order to justify taking up the call of this difficult journey, both inward and outward, mysticism to Evelyn’s mind must be practical. It’s not just about reaching up, it’s also about bringing down. While the experience of ultimate reality is personally transforming, mystics must create in the material world.

In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn outlines a universal process to be used by those interested in deeply engaging with reality. The first step requires the training of attention. With meditation and recollection, you begin to experience freedom, spaciousness, and peace. Your values change as you let go of your attachments. Later, as you develop in the first contemplation stage, you bring the “eyes of love toward the world”, recognizing the Immanent Being in everyone (and everything). You go in search of connection while dismantling your own personality. During the second contemplation, you’re pulled into deeper levels of reality which are supported now by an inward push. At this stage, knowing is achieved through direct intuitive contact and not through thought or feeling. Here the depth and height of your experience transforms you. The transcendent nature of mystical experience is ineffable, but that has never stopped mystics from trying to describe it.

Photo by Bjoertvedt

Photo by Bjoertvedt

One line truly stood out from the book for me. Evelyn says (and here Christian mystics seem to depart from Eastern traditions), “Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly.” Of course, there are whole traditions that advocate just that.

Returning to Evelyn’s map of mystical progress, the third contemplation is characterized by a ceasing of your active efforts. You let go of striving and rest in the darkness and quietude. The self surrenders, receives, and gains a conviction in the certainty of the Transcendent. What you actually experience depends on the individual. Some may experience ecstasy, but it is always on some level, unity through personal encounter. From here, you return to the material world to take up the mystical life going deeper and wider, permanently changed. Now the work involves becoming “an active and impassioned servant of eternal wisdom.” In Evelyn’s model, contemplation is never an end in itself. The challenge of the spiritual life is to go up and down the ladder getting inspiration and creating in the world. The work to be done today is huge; much like it was back in 1914. The true mystic takes up the call to live a “better, intenser, and more significant life.”

 

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