Pagan Metaphysics 101 by Springwolf

Pagan Metaphysics 101: The Beginning of Enlightenment
Springwolf
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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Practical Protection Magick by Ellen Dugan

Practical Protection Magick: Guarding and Reclaiming Your Power
Ellen Dugan
Llewellyn Publications, 2011
218 pages

Back in the 1990s when I first started getting into neopaganism, the pagan publishing world was glutted with countless books on spells, rituals, how-to-do-X-type-of-magick, and other compendia of brief and not particularly deep explorations of assorted topics. This book is a throwback to that time, for better or worse.

It does have its good points. The information that the author includes in conjunction with the rituals is often pretty sound. She talks about standing up to bullies, a topic that needs much more coverage, and doesn’t just throw a spell at it. She also uses anecdotes and discussion to illustrate how not to deal with disruptive members of magical groups, how to tell a psychic vampire with good ethics from one without, and setting one’s boundaries more firmly, the latter of which is absolutely essential to staying safe on all levels of being. And the rituals and spells associated with the various topics can help to solidify the lessons in the reader’s mind.

However, there are also some major issues that severely deplete the effectiveness of even the good points. For example, early in the book she gives symptoms of a psychic attack, such as the feeling of being watched, or a heaviness about the shoulders. What’s sorely lacking, though, is a healthy application of Occam’s Razor—“the simplest answer is the most likely”. The feeling of being watched is a remnant of us being mammals, and we are aware of purely physical cues on a not-entirely-conscious level that can still create reactions we are conscious of. And she completely ignores any other potential internal source for these feelings.

In at least one case this could lead to someone not getting proper treatment for a mental condition: she states that having “Vivid, recurring dreams that are especially violent or disturbing” (p. 39). This is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and can also be associated with other anxiety disorders, and nowhere does she suggest going to a counselor or other professional to rule out any potential diagnoses.

She also sets people up for self-pigeonholing by offering up a set of criteria to determine whether one has one of four psychic “powers”—clairaudience, clairvoyance, empathy, and intuition (the latter of two are actually found in any healthy human being and are products of our evolution as social mammals based, again, on subtle unconscious cues and responses). Some of the criteria are pretty weak:

“I always pay attention to my inner voice or my inner monologue.” Yes, that’s called thinking.
“I can hear it when someone is lying to me.” Welcome to nonverbal communication.
“While being taught something new, I do better by being shown as opposed to being told.” There are lots of people with a more visual learning style as opposed to an auditory learning style.
“I mistrust people who will not look me in the eyes or who look away while speaking to me.” There are some cultures in which it is considered rude to look at someone directly while speaking; additionally, some people even in American culture are just shy.
“I am easily influenced by other people’s moods and emotions.” So are a lot of other people with really permeable boundaries; this is not always healthy.

I wanted to give a few more examples, but this is all I could stomach. Needless to say, the majority of these criteria are just plain human being traits, and I foresee this book making people, yet again, treat these normal human traits as “I’m soooooooo special!”

Overall, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone. The shaky and questionable parts far outweigh the benefits.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints 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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Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Real Energy – Phaedra and Isaac Bonewits

Real Energy: Systems, Spirits and Substances to Heal, Change and Grow
Phaedra and Isaac Bonewits
New Page Books, 2007
288 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

When I first picked up Real Energy I was expecting a work on energy manipulation and healing techniques. There is some of that in there, but the Bonewits duo came at it from a totally different angle than I expected. Not that I’m complaining, of course.

The authors cover a variety of esoteric topics ranging from spirits and other entities to elemental correspondences, all with an emphasis on the energies inherent within these systems. The book is basically a thorough introductory guide to the energetic model of how magic works. Some of the information may already be familiar to more experienced practitioners, but if you want a detailed analysis of the energetic model, this is it.

Real Energy also features one of the better weavings of magic and quantum mechanics I’ve seen. The Bonewits even manage to get a physicist who’s also an initiated witch to put in his two cents on the matter, which makes for a particularly unique perspective. Along the way we also get plenty of supporting evidence from both ancient and modern source materials, complete with endnotes, additional reading, and a healthy bibliography. Rather than sticking to traditional Western occultism, various paths and subcultures are touched on, from Theosophy to the Otherkin community.

If you like Isaac’s general style of writing—detailed, researched, and with a good dose of humor—you’ll enjoy reading this book. However, Phaedra displays her talents as a writer too, which makes me hope that there’ll be more from her in later works.

This would be a good read for those who have heard of energy in the magical sense, but aren’t quite sure what it is, as well as anyone who wants to work more within an energetic paradigm. I applaud this Dynamic Duo for offering up a well-researched, well-written work on a popular topic.

Five pawprints out of five.

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