Tag Archives: book review

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.

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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

GENES ARE NOT DESTINY

DNA

When I was a teen, genetic determinism was in full swing. As I watched my grandparents die of heart attacks or strokes, I became convinced that my life would end by the same mechanism and I was content with the inevitable partially because it was a far off reality. But again, science is shifting our thinking. The new paradigm is called epigenetics and it has a lot to say about the choices we make. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity not caused by changes in the DNA structure.

biology of belief

Science is starting to grapple with the idea that our environment and choices are far more important than our genetic code. Bruce Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief, cites that around 95% of our illnesses are related to life-style choices, stress, and a toxic environment. We have far more ability to influence our futures than merely accepting whatever is in our genetic code is written in stone. Studies of identical twins (with identical DNA) reveal that oftentimes only one twin exhibits some dreaded disease. There can also be substantial differences in longevity. How is this possible? How could genetic determinism get it so wrong?

As usual, science’s understanding has grown slowly and advanced a simple view which has become outmoded. It turns out that our genes are far from static. Genes are always in flux and always being influenced. Some genes are activated by growth, healing, or learning. Another kind of gene is influenced by stress, emotion, or dreaming. A new understanding through epigenetics may allow us to use our will to activate our genes and influence our destiny. According to this way of thinking, changing our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors sends new messages to our cells thereby changing our protein production without affecting our DNA blueprint. So the original code stays the same, but new information allows the cells to create thousands of variations of that gene.

Dispenza

As an illustration of how this might work, Joe Dispenza in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, looked at a Japanese study of type 2 diabetes. The subjects were divided into two groups. After a baseline reading to establish fasting blood sugar levels, one group watched an hour-long comedy show while the other group watched a boring lecture. Subsequent to viewing the programs, the group who had watched the comedy show had significantly lower levels of blood sugar. After ruling out the idea that physically laughing took glucose from the blood, the researchers found that the laughing diabetics had altered 23 different gene expressions. A new state of mind apparently triggered their brains to send new signals to their cells which allowed genetic variations affecting blood sugar levels.

genie in your genes

The overall idea here is that we have a vast amount of say in how our genes create our futures. I am not destined to die of a heart attack, nor am I necessarily protected from cancer, just because no one in my family has had it. DNA is not destiny. We will need to tread carefully when we have any kind of genetic testing. I do ascribe to the idea that knowledge is power, but we need to be cautious and not bring into fruition a future that defaults to a false belief system. Another great book on the emerging paradigm is The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church.

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Filed under Book Review, Books, health

STEPPING OUT OF TIME

clock

We’re taught to think in terms of linear time. Our whole lives are guided by the concept that one event precedes another and that consequences come from causes. We tell our life stories from the beginning and only in middle age do we look back connecting events in new ways to retell our story. Even this perspective, binds us to linear time. And yet, we all have experienced time’s peculiarities which open us to wonder. Why is it I can lose time in a favorite activity and that last hour at work seems like a month?    Dispenza

Einstein said, “…the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” Here we see Einstein speaking like a mystic and why should that surprise us? I’m reading Dr. Joe Dispenza’s book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself (How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One). Dispenza takes on the notion of linear time by examining an experiment done in 2000 by an Israeli doctor. Watch for the zinger!

praying

Leonard Leibovici, MD conducted a double-blind, randomized trial of 3393 hospitalized patients all suffering with a sepsis infection. Leibovici was interested in whether prayer could affect patient outcome. The patients were divided with half being prayed for and half not being prayed for. Dr. Leibovici collected data on the length of fever, length of stay in the hospital, and death as a result of infection. Turns out the prayed for patients had an earlier reduction in fever and shorter hospital stays. The death rates for both groups were not statistically different. The results may shock some, but science has been doing prayer studies for quite a while ( Healing Words-The Power of Prayer & The Practice of Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD). The truly mind- numbing thing about the study is that those praying in 2000 were praying for patients who were hospitalized in the period 1990 to 1996. The conclusion drawn here was that patients who were prayed for in 2000, actually got better in the 1990s.

So what is going on and how should it change our ideas about time? What if Einstein is right and time is just a persistent illusion, an artifice created by the brain? We’re used to thinking that prayer or focused attention might be able to affect our future. But what if I can do something today to affect my past? Can I pray for a better childhood? Can I heal a fractured relationship from decades ago? Can I send myself strength to get through a rough career change I’m making now? Can I? Can you?

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Filed under Book Review, Books, healing, Spiritual/Mysticism

TreeHouse Arts Interviews Me

IM000011.JPG

I’ve been doing a lot of author interviews and book reviews lately. This month, TreeHouse Arts turns the table on me with some great questions. If you want to learn more about my experiences and where this blog is heading, check this out. http://treehousearts.me/2014/05/31/an-interview-with-author-and-blogger-ellis-nelson/

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Story behind ITLS

Wisps from the Dazzling Darkness by Anne Whitaker

wisps-from-the-dazzling-darkness

Anne and I connected through our blogs. We share many similarities in interests and experiences. I just finished her wonderful memoir and I’m happy to share it here.

Over a thirty year period, Anne was challenged by many happenings which left her baffled. As a skeptic, she tried to come to grips with them as she managed a career and family. But how does the rational mind grasp phenomena like atmospheres, ghosts, poltergeists, mediumship, premonitions, reincarnation, mystical experience, and telepathy and make sense of them? The prevailing worldview of scientific materialism insists they’re not possible. Using diary notes and drawing upon recall, Anne categorizes the events and digs deeper. Her writing is straightforward, honest, and from the heart.

Most of us have probably had some kind of weird experience that defies rational analysis. In 2009, a Pew Research study revealed that 29% of Americans report they have had contact with the dead and 18% have had an encounter with a ghost. Furthermore, 49% report mystical experience as defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” In this context, Anne is far from alone. Many of us dismiss these events because they’re uncomfortable. We shrug our shoulders and try to forget them. This is where one of the powers of Anne’s writing grabs us. As we read about her experiences, we begin to remember our own. Anne is fueled by open-minded curiosity coupled with rationalism in her search. And just like her, we’d like some answers too.

Anne Whitaker

Anne turns to science and finds the reductionist materialism paradigm to be inadequate to address her experiences. At the same time, she knows that current theoretical physics has offered hope. New scientific theories are starting to make inroads toward the mainstream. In the final part of the memoir, she takes on the science and realizes the paradigm for our reality must shift to accommodate what many of us have experienced. Kudos to Anne for boldly sharing her journey. May her book encourage others to do the same.

You can purchase the book here: http://anne-whitaker.com/wisps-from-the-dazzling-darkness/

To learn more about Anne and her work: www.anne-whitaker.com

Anne Whitaker has worked in the fields of adult education, social work, and counselling. She has been a practicing astrologer, teacher and writer since 1983. Her first book was entitled Jupiter Meets Uranus (2009). She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Pew Study Link: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/12/09/many-americans-mix-multiple-faiths/

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Filed under Book Review, Books, PSI

SHAKING MEDICINE by Bradford Keeney

Shaking Medicine

Bradford Keeney’s book, Shaking Medicine, takes us into the heart of healing with ecstatic movement.  While the East and West delights in powerful, relaxing healing modalities of meditation and acupuncture, Keeney bravely asserts we are missing the other half of healing medicine- the shaking forms of arousal from Africa and other cultures.  Mostly absent from our culture are the healing techniques of The Shake and it’s time we got over our prejudice.  Keeney believes that it is only when we fully cycle through being hyper-aroused and then deeply relaxed, can we powerfully realign and evolve in a pattern consistent with holistic medicine.  Fifty years ago or so, meditation was new and seen as a fringe movement and now it is so accepted and commonplace, doctors recommend it.  Keeney predicts Shaking Medicine is coming west and it’s healing benefits will be open to all.  At first I wondered about that, but my latest foray into my local meetup groups, revealed that there is a group dedicated to ecstatic dance.

Of course, some of the hurdles for society to overcome are the immediate associations we have for those shaking.  Historically scholars (and the general public) have associated ecstatic movement with mental or neurological disease.  Some would even go so far as to say evil or satanic, but most of that is either blatant prejudice or cultural ignorance.  There is also a fear of being out of control that western cultures so value.  Conformity and predictability are pillars of our society, what would happen if everyone shook?  Would we….lose it?  And those still prevalent fears have led Keeney to call shaking The Last Great Taboo.

Photo by: Justin Hall

Photo by: Justin Hall

So what is shaking all about?  Simply put it’s an experience, a journey into the ecstatic state brought forth by trembling joy.  You tremble, quake, and shake losing control and entering into healing and transformation.  Like other mystical practices, you surrender to higher authority and wisdom.  For Keeney, it’s the thing most missing from our spiritual table in the West.  Cultures who practice it value it for its ability to renew and restore vitality.  It takes us into the unknown and connects us to life in all its forms.

Assembly of Quakers, London. Engraving.

Assembly of Quakers, London. Engraving.

This is a book I truly loved.  I knew nothing about the subject and enjoyed visiting the diverse cultures Keeney portrays.  Lest you think shaking is confined to the African continent, Keeney starts out with a tale about settlers in the Pacific Northwest and later the Quakers and Shakers all of whom participated in ecstatic movement in pursuit of spiritual growth.  Keeney has strong ties to the Kalahari bushmen earning the title of Heart of Spears, a title of respect acquired by learning and experiencing their shaking medicine.  Some of the other cultures explored in the fascinating book include the: Spiritual Baptists of St. Vincent (Caribbean), African American Church, Seiki Jutsu (Japan), and Hindu/Buddhist traditions (India).  The book comes with a CD and instructions to begin your own journey of discovery.  Highly recommended!

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Spiritual/Mysticism