Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131

Naturalistic Occultism
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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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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Dancing God by Diotima

Dancing God: Poetry of Myths and Magicks
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008
200 pages

Poetry usually isn’t my preferred reading material, but every so often I find a book of it that I truly enjoy. Dancing God is the second volume of poetry that’s caught my attention in such a way, the first being The Phillupic Hymns by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. In this particular text, I was treated to a lovely variety of verses, some of which are strongly flavored by mythology–but all of which speak to the human condition.

Diotima’s verses are generally not long, but instead are bite-sized descriptions of her interaction with the world, Divine and mortal alike. There are four themes, each with its own section: Gods, Myths and Sagas; Love; Life; and Death. Diotima has done a lovely job of sorting her works into these categories, but the variety she displays demonstrates an understanding of multiple perspectives on each theme.

The poems in the Gods, Myths and Sagas section may be of particular interest to pagan readers. Her works encompass several mythologies, from Greek to Celtic to Japanese; primarily, though not exclusively, they are snippets of story or honor (or both!) offered to a particular deity. Some are rooted in the deities’ contemporary cultures, such as a rather macabre description of Dionysus’ darker aspects, a retelling of Fenris’ chaining, and a poem to Hekate as “lady of the hounds”. Others, such as Icarus’ musing on human’s common flight in airplanes, a poem comparing the original manifestation of angels to their modern “cute” depictions, and wondering “Do the old gods walk the streets of London?”, are more modern commentary. They all weave together well, and demonstrate that the gods are not, in fact, dead at all. These would all make lovely incorporations into private rituals and meditations.

All of the poems, however, are exquisitely crafted. Both the kind and the painful sides of love are evoked (I was particularly fond of “Communication”, with its recurring line “Damn you, pick up the phone!”). “Life” is a short section full of little slices thereof, commentary on the day to day (and yet how unusual it can be from this angle!). The theme of death is dealt with using everything from grief to black humor, a good catharsis for working through loss.

Having been assaulted with bad verse and worse attempts, Dancing God is a reminder that we still have muse-touched poets today, those who create beauty through carefully structured words. There’s magic in these pages, and Diotima is an accomplished magician when it comes to evoking the feelings she wishes to convey.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Malchizedek

Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books, 2007
270 pages

There’s a saying that I’m fond of using when talking about spiritual practices:

It’s okay to have your head in the clouds, just so long as your have your feet firmly planted on the ground.

While trying to empirically prove any spiritual belief is most likely a lost cause, and belief is a heavily personal and subjective phenomenon, when beliefs intersect with more concrete concepts such as history and culture, quality of research becomes highly important. Unfortunately, much of the New Age has a tendency to eschew basic research techniques as “too academic”, and the proponents of a lot of New Age material prefer to not have anyone harsh their mellow, as it were. Hence why New Agers get a bad rap, including among neopagans, who do have a greater tendency to research history, mythology and other -ologies in an attempt to test their beliefs and experiences.

The whole 2012 morass is full of an unwillingness to do such litmus testing. In the spirit of the new Age “anything goes” attitude, the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 has spawned an entire genre of “nonfiction” based on trying to prove that this means the world will come to an end exactly where the carvers ran out of stone on that particular timepiece. It seems as though the (primarily white) people who have latched onto the 2012 thing have done little to no research on the actual Mayan and other central American indigenous cultures, and instead pick and choose whatever bits of information will, however tenuously, “support” their claims. It’s one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation.

Serpent of Light is an excellent example of this: the entire book is the author’s ramblings about channeled information and other unverified personal gnosis that has absolutely no historical backing whatsoever. There’s the predictable hodgepodge of “Mayan” beliefs, Eastern philosophies (such as chakras), and New Agery (particularly the infamous crystal skulls, which have absolutely no historical relevance to the Maya or any other indigenous culture).

Here’s an example of what this all causes the author to do:

“I was preparing to go to the Yucatan in Mexico to place specially programmed crystals in jungle temples, and I had never been there before in my life” (p. 52).

So you’ve never been to a place, never interacted with the people, other living beings, spiritual denizens, or the place itself–and you’re going to presume to improve upon what another culture entirely created?

…and this is pretty much what the entire book is: White guy who makes up his own convenient version of history mucks around in other people’s cultural artifacts attempting to improve on them because of what his channeled messages say. I could go on and on, but it would just be more of the same. Unlike The Great Shift, the only other book on 2012 I’ve reviewed here so far, there’s not even practical advice to balance out the drek.

Not recommended.

One pawprint out of five.

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Trance-Portation by Diana L. Paxson

Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World
Diana L. Paxson
Weiser Books, 2008
276 pages

Given her extensive work in trance work, particularly (though not exclusively) being a founder of modern seidr practice, Diana L. Paxson is an excellent person to be writing an in-depth guide to deliberately achieving altered states of consciousness. While numerous books on (neo)shamanism and other practices give sections or chapters on techniques including drumming, conscious breathing, dancing, and other methodology, this text specialized in explaining trance work in all its detail, and does a great job of fulfilling its goal.

Rather than only focusing on one particular type of trance work (such as only journeying), Paxson offers a more general framework that can be applied in several different contexts. Don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s watered-down however. It’s generalized in the same way William G. Gray’s Magical Ritual Methods explains a generalized approach to ritual magic. In both cases, the authors go into painstaking detail in the mechanics of their subject matter, but without adhering to a specific path.

This truly is a step-by-step guide to trance. Paxson starts with a variety of exercises to train the reader in necessary skills for trance, and to prepare them for what’s next. Trance itself is covered in detail–not only the actual mechanisms for doing so, and ways to shift one’s mind into an altered state, but also information on both physical and incorporeal aid and tools. Additionally, she discusses something many authors overlook–the inherent dangers associated with trance work. Not just medical dangers, which everyone talks about, but the fact that not everything you meet may be nice, and yes, you may have to fight. There are also substantial sections for those who will be guiding others through trance to help them apply the rest of the book to their work.

Trance-portation is a cover-to-cover guide that will be useful to just about any neopagan, neoshaman, or other person wanting help in journeying, astral travel, lucid dreaming, and similar practices. It’s one I’ll be recommended to my own students, and one that I think will be indispensible to most of the people who pick it up.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Great Shift edited by Martine Vallee

The Great Shift: Co-Creating a New World for 2012 and Beyond
Edited by Martine Vallee
Weiser, 2009
256 pages

As 2012 approaches, it’s becoming a hotter topic. Just what will occur? Are we all doomed, or will absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happen? I suppose I should preface this review by saying that I don’t believe in the 2012 mythos, that significant events happen every day that are completely unrelated, and that I don’t take channelled texts literally–I don’t believe they’re more than the writer “channelling” some part of their mind not normally used. If you compare the results of channelling with the culture of the channeller, you see a lot of cultural similarities. So my approach to this anthology of channelled writings about 2012 is already biased.

The book is divided into three parts, one apiece for Lee Carroll “channelling” Kryon, Tom Kenyon “channelling” the Hathors and Mary Magdalen, and Patricia Cori “channelling” the High Council of Sirius. (Why doesn’t anyone ever channel anyone more boring?) About the only way I could take this book seriously was to look at it as purely a mythos, rather than a literal “we channelled this from beings who actually exist Somewhere Out There”. And in that light, there were actually some pieces of good advice that can essentially be summarized as:

–Take good care of your physical health and be aware of your body, instead of ignoring it until something goes seriously wrong
–Be good to yourself emotionally and mentally, and tend to your health there
–Be kind to other people; there’s enough nastiness in the world that needs balancing out

These are quite applicable pieces of advice in these times, and the writers often provide some really useful insights on how to accomplish these things. Western cultures, especially the dominant culture in the U.S., tend to lack interconnection and awareness, and I found some nice reminders to reach out to others, and to reach within myself as well.

Unfortunately, it’s couched in a lot of New Age material, including (of course) crystal skulls and Egypt, and star beings and not-at-all-vicious-as-in-the-Bible-angels. Because of this, I found myself twitching a good bit of the time I was reading. Still, to each their own. If you have more tolerance for New Age material, you’ll have an easier time with the book; even if you don’t, feel free to glean whatever’s useful from it.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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