Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131

Naturalistic Occultism
IAO131
The Society of Scientific Illuminism, 2009
96 pages

Scientific Illuminism was described by Crowley as “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”. A number of attempts to explain magic through science have been made, including (but not limited to) The Science of the Craft by Bill Keith and Real Energy by Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits, both of which (similarly to Peter J. Carroll’s brand of Chaos magic) utilize quantum physics as the “how” of magic. Naturalistic Occultism is much more psychology-heavy, explaining everything from astral projection to divination using almost exclusively various psychological models and schools of thought.

Certain accusations (by others, such as some scientists) that psychology is a “soft” discipline aside, the author does a pretty good job of basic, bare-bones explanations. He certainly achieved his overall goal of explaining occult concepts and techniques without resorting to mysticism and superstition. For example, he shows how the astral body is actually the brain’s own perception and understanding of the shape and appearance of the physical body itself–the image that the brain carries of the body, as it were. This doesn’t stop him from including a brief appendix with instructions on how to astrally project using this concept.

And I suppose that’s one of my complaints with this book–it’s brief. One of my partners, who is similarly enamored of a more scientific way of explaining esoterica, remarked on what he read as seeming like an abstract rather than a full text, and I would agree with him. There are some very good ideas started in this book, and yet the author could have gone so much further. I would have liked to have seen more thorough explanations of how psychology explains the various occult concepts he covers, as well as a greater variety in the concepts explored. I also would have enjoyed more practical applications of the psychological model of magic that is espoused in this book, because I did like the couple of appendices with that sort of thing in them. I wasn’t quite so thrilled by the occasional tendency toward “debunking” that came across in the writing; one can explain the science of mystical practices and still have a constructive view towards those practices, an example being The Spirit of Shamanism by Roger Walsh. (Just as a note, there were some more constructive aspects to the material as well; it didn’t all come across as debunking.)

In short, there needs to be more, because this is a good start. Overall, I liked the book, and I’m only docking it points for its brevity. If you want a very concise look at the psychological model of magic, this is a good text to have on hand. And there most certainly need to be more rational approaches to a series of topics that often fall prey to ridiculousness and need some serious paring with Occam’s Razor. More writing from IAO131 along this vein would be one such welcome thing, to be sure.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Between the Worlds – Stuart Myers – April BBBR

Between the Worlds: Witchcraft and the Tree of Life – A Program of Spiritual Development
Stuart Myers
Llewellyn, 1995
230 pages

I generally find mashups of Wicca/witchcraft and other magical systems to be somewhat clumsy affairs, usually because the relatively new interpretations of witchcraft sometimes seem to water down the much older systems that they’re paired with. I can understand the desire to draw together elements of multiple magical/spiritual paths, but all too often the results come across as contrived if they’re presented as anything more than the author’s own personal blend. (Plus it’s irritating to hear over and over again how everyone from Siberian shamans to Jesus of Nazareth was really practicing witchcraft.)

The author of Between the Worlds made a worthy attempt at blending Wicca and Qabalah; considering that a lot of the correspondences and other elements of Wicca stem from Qabalistic symbolism, they’re a much better pairing than others I’ve seen. The text is highly practical, composed entirely of exercises, meditations and rituals for growth and personal evolution using the Tree of Life as scaffolding. While much of it is based on Qabalah, Myers manages to weave in odd bits of witchcraft here and there, particularly as a way to show how the tools and techniques of that system can be used in conjunction with the more complex symbolism of Qabalah.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by the attempt to take the duotheistic/soft polytheistic theology of Wicca and juxtapose it with the monotheistic (or hard polytheistic, depending on who you talk to) theology of Qabalah. Granted, Qabalah is pretty flexible in and of itself, but I find the God/Goddess thing to often be oversimplified. That’s where most of my issues with the book stem from, and if you can work around it, you’ll probably find it more useful than I did.

Overall, it’s a highly useful book, and offers much to the reader who is willing to go through and utilize the tools offered in its pages. It’s been out of print for several years, though used copies are fairly easy to find. A good book for a Wiccan/witch wanting to incorporate more Qabalah, or simply wanting a more detailed and structured method of personal evolution than what your average Wicca 101 book offers.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem by Philip H. Farber

Meta-Magick, the Book of Atem: Achieving New States of Consciousness Through NLP, Neuroscience, and Ritual
Philip H. Farber
Weiser Books, 2008
170 pages

I think I’ve been a bit spoiled in my reading choices–or maybe I’m just more of a geek than I thought. Here, Phil Farber presents a book that ties together memetics, consciousness and the nature of reality, NLP and other forms of psychology, and magical entities, and I’m thinking over and over again “Wow, I’ve seen this before. I’ve read that, too. Oooh, I’m familiar with this concept!” And then it dawned on me–Farber’s read a lot of the same stuff, and managed to synthesize it into this nifty handbook for working with the entity Atem.

Atem is an egregore created by Farber in conjunction with this book. He is an opener of ways for an entire new group of entities to be created by those magicians who read Meta-Magick–in short, Atem is a catalyst, a means to an end. As such, this book should be taken not as a basic guide to consciousness and magic, or memetics, or entity creation, but in how these and other topics relate to Atem, and the overarching goals associated with him

While Farber includes a satisfactory amount of theory to explain what he’s about, the practical material in this book is even better. For example, working with a six-part structure based on the various elements (such as Attention and Passion) that are part of Atem’s fabrication, Farber guides the reader through a thirty-six day regimen that allows them to not only understand Atem in all his parts in more detail and work these into new entities, but to also have a better understand of the self and its place in reality. There are other rituals and practices as well, and he does a good job of explaining why they’re there. It reminds me, in some ways, of an updated and expanded version of what Robert Anton Wilson was trying to do with Prometheus Rising–help explain how the mind and reality interact.

I would classify this as an intermediate text. Those who have a basis in magic, particularly Chaos or other postmodern forms of magic, will have a better understanding of what’s going on than a rank beginner. However, those who have already read extensively on consciousness and reality, psychology, neurobiology, memetics, entity creation, and other topics that Farber integrates into the Atem working will probably not find too much new material here. I would suggest using this book as a springboard into looking into these other subjects. I do wish he had used internal citations, because I like being able to follow a particular thought to its source and then on from there, but he does offer some resource suggestions to tempt the bibliophile’s appetite.

I think my only complaint is that much of the material works best with two other people. If you are a solitary practitioner entirely, and can’t find other folks who are dedicated enough to give a couple of months to Atem workings, you’re going to have trouble completing this text as described. This is a pretty significant drawback, considering that some magicians are simply isolated, and others don’t prefer to work with others. I wish he would have primarily tailored the material for the individual, with options for small group work.

I do commend Farber for what he’s trying to do here–he’s done a nice job of synthesizing his research into a cohesive magical working that’s effective both internally and on a wider plain of reality. This is a good book to give someone who’s already read Carroll and Hine and wants to do something more specific with Chaos-type magic, particularly surrounding entity work.

Four pawprints out of five.

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New Batch of Facing North Reviews

Facing North, an ambitious repository of reviews of pagan books, recently posted some new reviews. While I crosspost some of my reviews from over here there, I do some exclusives for them. I linked to some here, and here are the newest ones as well:

The Good Cat Spell Book by Gillian Kemp
Rock Your World With the Divine Mother by Sondra Ray
Angel Animals by Allen and Linda Anderson
Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin (this, incidentally, is the book that started my path to graduate school)

Ecopsychology edited by Roszak, Gomes and Kanner

Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind
Edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner
Sierra Club Books, 1995
334 pages

So you might wonder why I’m reviewing a book on psychology here. It’s not just because there’s an essay on ecopsychology and shamanism in it (though that’s a definite talking point). Rather, it’s because (outside of neopaganism) ecopsychology is the closest thing to animism that the dominant culture in the U.S. has at this point. I found numerous parallels between this book and my own beliefs as a pagan and (neo)shaman, and I think that any pagan who has animistic beliefs and/or has a commitment to the world around them (environmental or otherwise) should take a good, long read of this book.

One of the editors, Theodore Roszak, coined the term “ecopsycholoy” in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth (which is on my want list). This anthology is a continuation of that current. It contains over twenty essays from therapists, ecologists, and other folks on the psychology of connection with the world around us–and seeing ourselves as a part of that world, not separate from it. I’m not going to go through every single essay; I will say that I enjoyed every single one–this is a very solid collection. I do want to highlight a few of the themes covered:

–Ecopsychology as a way to make the boundaries between Self and Other more permeable, but not to the point of the complete dissolution of Self. One of our biggest problems is that we’re too independent, to the point of ill health on numerous levels. Ecopsychology finds healthy balances that address both the needs of Self and of Other.

–Another theme, related to that, is ridding ourselves of our hangup on dualities–for example, not assuming that reducing the rigidity of one’s boundaries of Self will automatically result in a complete loss of Self. Instead, ecopsychology promotes a different way of looking at the world.

–Social issues are another theme. Ecopsychology is brought into conjunction with feminist theory in a few of the essays. The domination and controlling headspace of men enacted towards women is directly linked to the domination and control of the natural environment by humanity, particularly in the Western world. Additionally, there’s a brilliant essay on confronting racial issues in ecopsychology, as well as the concept of “deconstructing whiteness” and what that means for psychology and ecology.

–The current destruction of the natural environment is explored as being the result of pathologies, to include addiction and narcissistic personality disorder. These are some of the most powerful essays in the collection, and as they’re early on, they’re a hard-hitting opener.

There’s plenty more to this meaty text. For pagans, there’s plenty to chew on. Besides the parallels between ecopsychology and animism, and approaching the world as an interconnected whole populated by spirits, deities, and a living Earth, there’s also a neat essay about combining core shamanism and ecopsychological practice. And one of the essays delves deeply into indigenous shamanisms and what the author brought out of an experience halfway around the world from where he lived.

This is not an easy text to read, and not just for the writing style. It thoroughly challenges many of our assumptions about how the world is put together, and how we as humans (especially those of us in Western cultures) approach it. If you feel like it’ll be preaching to the choir, read it anyway. If you think it isn’t relevant to anything in your life, read it anyway. And if you think you’ll disagree with every bit of it–you got it, read it anyway. There aren’t that many books that I would consider absolute required reading for neopagan folk, but this is one of them.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

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The Book of the Vision Quest – Steven Foster

The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness
Steven Foster with Meredith Little
Bear Tribe Publishing, 1983
170 pages

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand there’s some really useful information in it. On the other, it smacks of wannabe Indianism. Let me elaborate on each.

The Good: The book is a good guide to what we’ll call vision questing, for simplicity’s sake. The second chapter of the book in particular is basically a handbook that seems designed for people that the author would guide out into the desert for their experiences. It has good practical information, though it should not be taken as your only source for this material. The bulk of the book involves anecdotes from various peoples’ experiences, used to illustrate different aspects of the quest. It’s well-written, and with a good balance of voices.

The Bad: It basically reads like “white people trying to be Indians”. Indigenous people are spoken of in the past tense, and in romanticized terms. While I understand that there are plenty of people trying to reconnect with the land, with each other, with themselves, too often people try to copy from other cultures without taking their own cultural contexts into account. There’s no real distinction made between the context of a society for whom vision questing is an integrated part of one’s life cycle, and a society for whom it is an alien experience. While the detachment of mainstream Americans is made clear, the manners in which we may experience our quests differently are not made so clear. Additionally, the use of the term “vision quest” may lead people to believe that the book is indigenous in origin.

I do see what the author was trying to do, and I think it’s a noble effort to try to get people reconnected. I just wish it weren’t in such a romanticized manner.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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Green Hermeticism – Wilson, Bamford and Townley

Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley
Lindisfarne Books, 2007
206 pages

I cannot rave enough about this book. I forget exactly where I heard about it, but given the dearth of material on ecological spirituality/magic, especially outside of a shamanic or neopagan perspective, I fairly jumped at a chance to pick this text up.

This is not a how-to book, with the exception of one chapter. It is primarily rather dense and inspiring theoretical discussion of the links between hermeticism and alchemy, and the need for a more eco-friendly approach to life, the Universe, and everything. Rather than try to summarize the book as a whole I’ll go through each chapter independently.

Chapter 1 (Wilson) – The Disciples at Sais: A Sacred Theory of Earth – This was originally a paper presented by the author at a 2003 “Sacred Theory of Earth” conference. Wilson traces the influences of green hermeticism, focusing particularly on the works of Romantic scientist and hermeticist Novalis, whose novel provided the title for the chapter. However, Wilson also draws on everyone from Paracelsus to Goethe. However, the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to Novalis, and is liberally adorned with quotes from his works that aptly illustrate foundations of green hermeticism.

Chapter 2 (Bamford) – One the All: Alchemy as Sacred Ecology – Chapter 2 examines the basic philosophy and worldview of alchemy, while highlighting those portions that are particularly applicable to modern ecological concerns. It is also part history lesson, following the progress of alchemy from Egypt to the East and back to the West. And, perhaps most importantly, the idea of One the All is discussed–a deep, pragmatic awareness of the interconnection of all things. We are not merely presented with wishy-washy pleas to “all just get along”, but convincing arguments towards revamping how we approach the Universe, and ourselves and everything else as the All.

Chapter 3 (Wilson) – Green Hermeticissm – Here’s where the book starts getting really good. Wilson dives deeper into hermeticism-as-ecological spirituality, and shows more examples of where the green roots in hermeticism come from throughout its history and development. However, modern implications are also discussed; I was particularly delighted by the section on mycoremeditation–cleaning up toxins through mushrooms which break down the chemical compounds–as a modern form of alchemy. There’s also a marvelous interpretation of lycanthropy as eco-magical awareness and activism, but in a way that takes animals on their own terms instead of through our usual anthropocentric perceptions. While the chapter flows from one topic to another, all together it paints a picture of a very different, much healthier way of viewing reality from what we’re raised with.

Chapter 4 (Bamford) – Quilting Green Hermeticism: A Tissue of Texts and Tracings – This chapter adds texture to the previous material. It’s a delightful collection both of Bamford’s own thoughts, and extensive quotes from various classic alchemical/hermetic texts. By far my favorite part was the section entitled “Ouroborous (‘Tail-eater’) or the Coincidence of Opposites”, an excellent tool for shattering dualistic preconceptions and tendencies towards dividing the world up just so. “Perception and Imagination” is also incredibly important in its promotion of change starting in the very way we view things; unless you are able to shift your perception, none of this will be nearly as useful. By the end of the chapter, my head was reeling from all the information and paradigm shifts, and yet I was left with a sense of a greater, all-encompassing reality–not just “out there” somewhere in the heads of strange old men tinkering with antique glassware, but “in here”, “right here”, “right now”, relevant to All.

Chaoter 5 (Townley) – The Manufacture and Use of Planetary Tinctures – I’m afraid to say that while this essay was exceptionally well-written, it seemed rather tacked on to the end of this book. It’s a practical guide to creating and using planetary tinctures, with a brief explanation of various substances created through alchemy. Do not, however, skip it just because it shifts gears. Give your mind a rest for a few days from the rest of the book, and then read this chapter as its own entity. Despite the difference in styles and focus, you can see elements of the theory of green hermeticism within the processes. In fact, try reading it once before reading the rest, and once after. What I really think, though, is that Townley should author or co-author a practical, hands-on book of green hermeticism techniques. He’s got the right idea, and if there had been more practical material in this book, this chapter would have fit in much better.

I honestly don’t believe I have done this book justice. Truth be told, I’m still digesting what I’ve read, and will go back to it numerous times to re-inoculate myself. However, I wanted to get the word out there as soon as I could, because this is by far one of the most impressive and thought-provoking texts I have ever read. I can’t speak too much as far as the alchemical/hermetic purity goes, since I’m not particularly well-read in those topics at this time. However, as a guidebook for ecological spirituality and magic, and a healthier way of being, it’s beyond essential. In fact, this is another one of those “anyone magical at all should read this” texts (I need to make a list someday….). It’s not an easy read, but it is one of the best.

Five exuberant pawprints out of five.

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Secrets of Shamanism – Jose and Lena Stevens

Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You
Jose Stevens, Ph.D. and Lena S. Stevens
Avon Books, 1988 (newer edition available)
228 pages

This is not a book about how to be a shaman, despite the title. (The authors don’t claim it is, either.) What it is, is a book primarily made of psychological and holistic techniques that are inspired by the authors’ studies on shamanism. If you look at the book this way you’ll probably like it a lot better than if you’re critiquing it for not being a book about shamanism.

There are a lot of useful techniques in here, some of which I’ve used (or are similar to things I’ve done). Some of them I wasn’t so interested in, such as the “stretching time” exercise. However, there are some great pathworking exercises in here to help you A) identify and banish bad habits, and B) instill better habits. It’s a great workbook for self-improvement, and I can easily see ways to alter the exercises if you want less of a “shamanic” feel to them. The authors explain what it is that works about these exercises, so that you know the mechanics as well as the how-tos of them.

I did get annoyed now and then with the “shamanic” elements, like “medicine wheels” and such. There were also blatant generalizations, such as the “Native American Heyoka” which was presented as a figure to emulate for breaking bad habits. No tribe-specific cultural history was given as an explanation. Additionally, some of the fictitious stories the authors included to illustrate some of their points made some generalizations about indigenous people.

Still, overall, this book has a lot to offer, if you can overlook the mild appropriation and New Age generalization. The exercises are overwhelmingly solid and useful, and there are many good tools that modern shamans (and others) can use, with or without the shamanic trappings.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Journey to Enlightenment – Ross Bishop

Journey to Enlightenment
Ross Bishop
Blue Lotus Press, 2008
248 pages

I’ll admit that when it comes to anything that’s more New Age than Neopagan, I’m a tough crowd. Ross Bishop, happily, has presented a book that got through my cynicism and gave a wonderfully balanced approach to healing internal wounds. I am quite pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book.

A good bit of Journey to Enlightenment centers on healing the traumas (no matter how seemingly small or supposedly unimportant) from childhood. It’s not just a matter of blatant abuse, but of simply not being understood, or having to deal with the bad conditioning your parents may have had that may have affected how they raised you, even if they never meant to hurt you and loved you dearly. However, Bishop also touches on a number of other issues that people may have unhealthy relationships with, such as finances and social skills.

The thing that makes this book valuable is that Bishop gently guides the reader into facing hir traumas head-on, without guilt or shame, and without too much pressure. He offers a set of thirteen principles that build upon each other as the book progresses, which form the core of a system for going into the self, confronting the issues and getting in touch with the inner child, and bring about healing for all aspects of the self, past and present. Guided meditation is used as a tool to further this process, though a lot of the book is brain food, things to get the reader really thinking about the issues, rather than a book full of rote, stock meditations and exercises. It’s a nice balance of things to think about and things to do.

If you’re expecting traditional shamanism a la Siberia and the Amazon, you won’t find it here. However, Bishop manages to bring elements of shamanic practice into 21st century postindustrial terms in a way that channels much-needed lessons and healing to an audience that can benefit from it. He never claims to be descended from eighteen Native American shamans, or attempts to frame his experiences in anything pretentious; he is down to earth, and strikes a good balance between (neo)shamanism, and healing psychology.

The writing style is pleasant; Bishop is a good writer, and conveys his concepts with thoughtfulness and depth. He has good research, too, and is well-grounded, something that more of the New Age should pay heed to. He proves that one can have a solid footing and still explore spirituality without floating off into the ethers. Other than a few typos, it’s a really good read structure-wise, and the layout far exceeds that even of some larger presses.

Five pawprints out of five.

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