Pagan Metaphysics 101 by Springwolf

Pagan Metaphysics 101: The Beginning of Enlightenment
Schiffer Publishing, 2011
128 pages

This book has so much potential. The concept is awesome: a book on paganism that doesn’t even start with tools and rituals and such, but instead gets to the very roots of the beliefs and cosmology through the language of metaphysics. Not “metaphysics” as in “woo”, but the nuts and bolts of “How does this work? Where did this core belief come from? Why do pagans often have this sentiment?” It’s the first in a planned series of books that build on each other to explore paganism in theory and practice, and is the foundational text thereof.

I will say that in some places it veers much more closely to the New Age than neopaganism. Most neopagans don’t really put much of an emphasis on Atlantis, for example. But there’s a lot that is more relevant, from how “energy” works, to practical work with karma (albeit a new Age tinged version thereof). Starting the book with a bunch of questions for the reader to answer about their own beliefs was a brilliant idea, because this book has a lot for a person to think about. Consider it brain food for spiritual exploration.

Unfortunately, the execution leaves me wondering whether the publisher even had an editor or proofreader look over this text, or whether the manuscript was simply put into print straight from the author. I found numerous typos, and places where the writing was rough and awkward to read. The organization didn’t always make sense, and sometimes the transition from topic to topic was less than smooth. I could kind of see the flow of where the author was trying to take the book, but it needs a good bit of refining.

Also, there are certain things that some neopagans may find downright offensive. The idea, for example, that Helen Keller (and other people born with disabilities) chose, prior to birth, to incarnate into a life with such challenges has all too often been used as a patronizing form of discrimination, as well as diminishing and even silencing the actual concerns of people with disabilities. This, and a number of other concepts that are more popular among New Agers than pagans, may cause some pagans to put the book back down (which is a bad idea–more on that in a moment).

My biggest complaint, though, is that the book simply could have been more. It’s a scant 128 pages, fewer if you take out the table of contents and whatnot, with fairly large text. The author covers a variety of topics, and yet many of them only get two or three paragraphs. I found myself saying on almost every page “This is really cool! But what about this element of it? Can you explain in more depth?” There are so many places where she could have expanded into more detail and background about just about everything she talked about, and still had a really good, coherent book that fit what seems to have been her intent with it.

What I would love to see is a second edition of the book someday, one that has better editing, has had more feedback from neopagans and what they more commonly believe, and, most importantly, more expansion on the material that’s already in here. Even with my complaints about the book in its current form, I do think there’s a lot of value to it–you just have to dig some. There is the aforementioned element of philosophical and soul-searching brain food that just about anyone would find useful, especially at a point of trying to find one’s spiritual identity (or simply as a refresher if you’ve been doing this a while). And despite the New Age woo that sometimes gets a little overwhelming, there are also awesome reminders that we are human beings in this life, and that sometimes that means things that are wholly human and physical and perfectly okay even if they aren’t strictly “spiritual”. There’s good grounding in there.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Chinese Power Animals by Pamela Leigh Powers

Chinese Power Animals: Archetypes of Transformation
Pamela Leigh Powers
Weiser, 2000
322 pages

Some things just don’t translate well across cultures–or, at least, the execution could be better. This is one of those things. This book is one of a number out there on Chinese astrology–you know, Year of the Fire Horse, Year of the Metal Dragon, etc.–that tries to make the system available to Westerners. The author takes elements of this system, and then adds them into a rather awkward synthesis along with Western astrology and New Age-flavored animal totemism.

Don’t get me wrong–I like new and interesting ideas. The problem is that the context of Chinese astrology, and various Chinese and other Asian healing systems, isn’t nearly as solid in this book as it needs to be to help people understand the why of the material. We’re left instead with an incomplete and sometimes confusing collection of quick-fix correspondences, and not enough answers.

For example, in talking about different relationships, the author says things like “The Horse has a Cat for a father”, regardless of the actual birth year or personality of the Horse person’s father himself. This makes no sense. And in fact, the whole system falls prey to the common pitfall associated with trying to make Chinese astrology “work” in the U.S.–it becomes a “You’re a [insert animal here], so therefore that means you are [insert stereotyped traits here]”. Because we don’t have the cultural contextual background to really get where these concepts came from, they end up oversimplified.

This could have been a much better book, but it feels slapped together out of convenience and connections between concepts that may or may not actually be relevant to each other. I was unimpressed.

One pawprint out of five.

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Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change by Master Zhongxian Wu

Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change: 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic Yijing (I Ching) Prediction System
Master Zhongxian Wu
Singing Dragon, 2009
240 pages

Note: This review is also appearing in an upcoming issue of Thorn Magazine, along with longer reviews not posted here.

While the core focus of the book is on the Yijing as a divinatory system, Wu presents an elaborate spiritual context surrounding the ceremony of divination. He goes into great detail explaining his particular interpretation of Chinese tea ceremony, not only its physical actions but observations such as the differences in how the tea tastes and feels on different points of the tongue to allow a deeper savoring. There are also various meditative poses for each of the eight days involved in learning Wu’s method of Yijing; while the system could be used by someone with a day job, some of the suggestions (such as spending days hiking) may be difficult without planning.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the author’s interpretation of the wu as shamans. He presents a highly romanticized picture of the wu as composed primarily of royal “enlightened beings.” While I would assume there were some such practitioners who engaged in divination, Wu fails to mention that “wu” is also attributed to peasant women by some sources, and he doesn’t mention whether the “shaman kings” of the Wu dynasty were uniformly enlightened, or whether some had feet of clay.

Practically speaking, the book is a little hard to follow because of its disorganization, which sometimes comes across as a stream of consciousness of ideas. This doesn’t make the book unreadable, just more difficult to parse.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Divine Nature – M. Cremo and M. Goswami – June BBBR

Divine Nature: A Spiritual Perspective On the Environmental Crisis
Michael A. Cremo and Mukunda Goswami
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1998
144 pages

I picked this up expecting a general book on ecospirituality. What I got was a book about how the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (commonly known as the Hare Krishnas) is working for sustainability and ecological balance.

I’m not going to judge the theological or social propriety of ISKCON. However, the book itself was an interesting read. A good deal of it was basic environmental awareness. The first few chapters focus on ecological issues that face the world today, as well as environmental and spiritual arguments for everything from humane treatment of animals to using ox power for farming rather than tractors. There’s also an interesting chapter on “Karma and the Environment” which may be of particular interest to those who believe in karma. And the last part of the book details what ISKCON members have been doing as far as sustainable actions and lifestyles go. The book is also peppered with profiles of individual ISKCON members and affiliates and the pro-environment work they’re doing.

Overall, it’s an interesting little book. I have little use for the theological specifics, but I think it’s great to see what other people are doing to A) present the problems that many are ignoring, and B) do something about it. Some of the environmental issues may be preaching to the choir for those who are already aware of them, but they are presented well. Ten years after this book came out, some of the references are a bit dated, but the message is clear.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Spiritual Transformation Through BDSM – Sensuous Sadie (editor)

Spiritual Transformation Through BDSM: Stories and Submissions from Fellow Travelers
Sensuous Sadie (editor)
Ephemera Bound Publishing, 2007
612 pages

This is a book that has desperately needed to be written. While there are a handful of texts on BDSM and spirituality (including Christianity, neopaganism, and other faiths and philosophies), this one brings together thoughts from well over two dozen people in the Scene for whom BDSM is a spiritual act. Generally well-known for their writings, the contributors have offered up their own essays, as well as been subjects of interviews by Sensuous Sadie herself.

Here is a treasure trove of thoughts and perspectives on spirituality and BDSM, from Christianity to neopaganism, Buddhism to animism, Hinduism to “no label, thanks”. Dominants, submissives and switches all weigh in with their thoughts; people from all walks of life, sexuality and experience levels make their voices heard. And the variety of ways in which they make their kink more spiritually meaningful is incredible–I never got bored reading the wide range of experiences these people had!

The editor has done a remarkable job of balancing out the content, as well as choosing a superb array of contributors. I really liked the combinations of interviews and essays, and I thought that both the topics the essays covered and the interview questions really got to the heart of the matter. This book really gave me a ton of brain food (okay, well, over a pound anyway–it’s a big book!)

What really struck me was how incredibly thoughtful the essays were. Unfortunately, all too often people outside the Scene (and even some within it) see BDSM and kinks as only tools for sexual gratification; those who are not kinky may assume that we’re all “perverts”, “deviants”, “sickos”, and otherwise unlovable, unwanted outcasts from society who are just out to get our next sexual fix. While there are certainly those for whom (healthy) kink is solely in the realm of Malkuth, there are also those of us for whom it is a transcendent experience. The contributors to this anthology do a remarkable job of offering up a variety of viewpoints to show the more spiritual/reflective side of BDSM, to show how it can make us better people–and even bring us closer to God (or whatever name you use to refer to the Divine). This is a truly valuable book, and it’s one that I wish I could show to anyone who assumes that BDSM is just about the slap and tickle for everyone. Sure, we may value the slap and tickle for what it is, but that’s not all that’s there.

Honestly, I really have only one minor complaint, and that’s the copy editing/proofreading. This book could have used one more pair of eyes looking it over, because I found a noticeable number of typos and misspellings in there, as well as consistent errors such as swapping its/it’s. Being an editor myself, I do tend to be more sensitive to these things, so it may not make as much of a difference to other readers; however, I found it a bit distracting.

Still, that’s a small thing in the face of 600 pages of pure excellence. I really, strongly recommend this book not only to those in the BDSM community, but also members of various religions who may be perplexed about how we “perverts” can find something so seemingly “messed up” to be such an incredible experience. Be forewarned, if you plan to read this in public, that there are a number of erotic (though not fully pornographic) photos scattered throughout for aesthetics–a brown paper book cover won’t cover those. But they’re lovely pictures, and I think they add to the text, as they’re artfully and tastefully beautiful.

Overall, a really nice book, and it comes quite recommended.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Open to Desire – Mark Epstein

Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust For Life (Insights from Buddhism & Psychotherapy)
Mark Epstein, M.D.
Gotham Books
227 pages

My husband, Taylor, recommended this to me. I’m normally not a huge fan of Eastern philosophy; there’s nothing wrong with it, but I suppose at this point I’m still pretty Western in my worldview. However, he gave it rave reviews, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of the tenets of Buddhism is overcoming of desire. This is often translated into pure asceticism, particularly in the right hand path of Tantra. The left hand path, however, takes a different approach, one that Epstein combines with 30 years as a psychotherapist.

He makes a great distinction between desire, and clinging, which is what causes desire to overpower us. We objectify and idealize that which we desire, and are disappointed when our desires are not met exactly as we expect. Epstein shows how to move beyond that clinging and to let go of expectations.

This is a remarkable look at desire, and how to work with it within the left hand philosophy of Tantra (which, by the way, is not the same as Left Hand Path as defined by modern paganism–yet another casualty of neopagan appropriation of other religions). The psychotherapeutic influece is a nice touch, and the author gives anecdotes which support his ideas quite nicely. Anyone with good observational skills should be able to use this material without needing a spoon-fed how-to.

Epstein gives us a valuable tool; rather than having to give up all earthly pleasures, we can overcome the clinging aspects of desire while allowing ourselves to experience it. Rather than being a contradiction, it shows a lesser-revealed aspect of Buddhism, and gives it a new twist. All in all, excellent!

Five pawprints out of five.

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