Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Between Heaven and Earth

There is a growing dissatisfaction toward Western medicine, especially here in America, where it seems that every year it gets more expensive, but the results don't reflect the price. My biggest complaint is that we don't have cures for the most common ailments; we just have treatments, mostly in the form of prescription medicines that have to be taken indefinitely. A second and possibly related complaint is that we treat the placebo effect, which reflects the power of the mind, as something to be controlled for instead of something we might be able to use to our advantage.

If you are interested in alternative medicine and would like to learn about some of the concepts and options, Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine is a good place to start. The book covers acupuncture, herbal medicine, and nutrition. The book offers the model of the body as a garden and the doctor as a gardener as a contrast to the conventional model of the body as a machine and the doctor as a mechanic. A healthy garden has growing plants and fragrant flowers; a machine works as intended or it's broken. A gardener tends a garden and removes weeds; a mechanic does preventive maintenance and replaces broken or worn-out parts. You get the idea.

A healthy garden includes more than the plants themselves; the soil, water, and weather conditions also have an impact. The gardens that we are include not just our bodies, but our minds, emotions and personalities. Thus the book gives five elements (fire, water, earth, wood and metal), which have more in common with the four elements of alchemy (fire, water, air and earth) than with the elements of the periodic table. The five elements correspond to basic personality patterns and to five of what the book calls "organ networks." The idea is that there should be balance between the elements.

You won't be able to perform acupuncture or prescribe herbs after reading this book, but you will have a solid grounding in the concepts behind traditional Chinese medicine. I recommend this book for those interested in the subject.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Are We Ready for Obama?

I have noticed in the liberals I have known a firm belief that everything would be fine if only we could get the right people into office. From what I've heard and read about Barack Obama, he seems to be one of the "right people." When Obama won the nomination, my first thought was that the liberals would finally get their wish, but that it wouldn't work. The current system is too firmly entrenched for one person to change it, assuming he actually tries to do what he says he will do, which would be a first.

What I believe now is that electing Obama will work if we work. I'll explain shortly, but first I have to cover a couple of terms that may not be familiar to everyone: microcosm and macrocosm. A good literal interpretation would be that microcosm means "small universe" and macrocosm means "large universe." Now to the point: America's current situation, with the economy, war, environment, and so forth, is a macrocosm. The situations of individual Americans are corresponding microcosms. I use the word "corresponding" because the doctrine of correspondence ("As above, so below") is one of the basic tenets of hermeticism. Simply put, in order to fix our country, we also have to fix ourselves.

As an example, let's talk about the economy. You can blame greedy speculators if you want, but the major cause of our economic problems is that the government has been spending more than it gets for years. This has caused a drop in the dollar's value, and a corresponding increase in oil and other prices. This corresponds to the main problem of many Americans (including myself): we are in debt up to our eyeballs. Both problems must be addressed in order to fix the economy.

I think you get the point, and I'm starting to sound preachy, so I'll stop. The bottom line is that if Obama wins, he's going to need lots of help. We can help him by doing the right thing for ourselves. I'll get off the soapbox now. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Psalms 82:6

There is an interesting verse in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 34:
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
This verse actually references Psalms 82:6. The King James version says this:
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
But the Jewish Publication Society version says this:
I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High.
The context in the Gospel according to John, where Jesus is about to be stoned by the priests for claiming to be the son of God, seems to support the King James interpretation. On the other hand, since the reference is to a book of the Old Testament, one would expect the Jewish interpretation to be authoritative. So which is right?

The short answer is: I don't know. But let's consider that both the Western mystic and the Western hermetic traditions say that we are all ultimately children of God. Let's also consider that children normally grow up to resemble their parents. At this point, I'll just say that growing up sometimes takes a long time (lifetimes, even) and let you connect the dots for yourself.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review: A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles is a textbook for those on the mystic path to recovery. It contains 4 parts: the textbook, a set of exercises, a teacher's manual, and a glossary. This book is channeled; like all channeled books, the important question is: "have they got anything useful to say?" In this case, the answer is an unqualified "Yes!" In addition to a viable roadmap to the mystic path, there are some interesting interpretations of the Bible, one of which I'll talk about below.

As I mentioned before, the mystic path aims at direct experience of unity with God (or the Universe, if you prefer). Before this can happen, the "baggage" must be dealt with. The Course has a unique way of dealing with it: forgiveness. You deal with your baggage by forgiving what you see of it in others. However, the Course has an unconventional definition of forgiveness. It doesn't mean "you've done something terrible to me, but I forgive you"; it means "you've seemingly done something terrible to me, but what I really am cannot be hurt, so there is nothing to forgive." The extreme case is given by the Crucifixion, where Jesus said: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do."

So how does this relate to baggage? It is a principle of psychology that what we hate most in others is the traits of ourselves that we push below the surface. Therefore, by forgiving them in others, we also forgive them in ourselves. As an example, have you ever been driving and had another car tailgating you and swerving back and forth to get your attention? If so, you probably have also been behind another car that was driving much to slowly and got a little impatient about it. The two situations are really two sides of the same coin. So if you can forgive the tailgater, you can also forgive yourself for secretly wanting to apply high explosives to the slow car in front of you.

Now for the workbook exercises: these are designed to be done no more than one per day. If it takes you more than one day to do an exercise, or you skip a day, don't worry about it. Each exercise consists of an idea that is to be applied in short sessions, and throughout the day. There are 365 of them, but, like I said, don't worry if it takes you more than a year to do them all. (Just between us, I only got through about 40.) The first half of the exercises is designed to erase your current way of perceiving the world, in order to make room for the perception given by the second half.

You can read the teacher's manual now if you really want to. The Course Police won't break down your door and arrest you. You'll probably get more out of it if you read the text first and do all of the exercises.

The bottom line? I've chosen the hermetic path, but I'm still reading the book. You should too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Review: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

I read anything I can written by Alan Watts; I recommend that you do the same. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is a good place to start. He has also written very good books about Zen and the Tao. "The Book" is an excellent introduction to the issues we face as recovering materialists.

The first chapter of the book reads like a mission statement: if there was a book for young people containing what they needed to know to lead fulfilling lives, what would be in the book? The answer relates to our first step: it is that our perception of the world is incorrect. We are not just separate personalities; we are also connected at a very deep level.

Let's talk about personality. The word comes from the Latin word "persona," meaning "mask." Our personalities are like masks that we wear when we interact with others. They are not us, except on a superficial level. The third chapter of the book, entitled "How to be a Genuine Fake," deals with this issue, and the paradox of being a "real person," which implies that one can make something real out of what is essentially an act!

This book would be a good start for all recovering materialists, especially those who have chosen the mystic path.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Star of David

The star of David, as you can see from the picture, is composed of two equilateral triangles, one pointing up and one pointing down. Today I would like to talk about the four alchemical symbols that can be derived, and some implications for us.

The symbols of the four alchemical elements, fire (an upward-pointing triangle), water (a downward-pointing triangle), air (an upward-pointing triangle with a horizontal line through it) and earth (a downward-pointing triangle with a horizontal line), are contained within the star of David. The word "elements" in this context does not mean elements like hydrogen and oxygen. Instead, they are more like qualities or states of being. Or if you like, you can think of them as the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma (not as in blood, but matter so hot that the atoms can't hold their electrons anymore).

Now let us consider the obvious combination of the fire and water triangles. Fire is active and water passive. From the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the (Father's) domain]
This is talking about making a union of opposites. For us, one example would be integrating the conscious and subconscious minds.

Now for the combination of earth and air. If air is read as heaven, this calls to mind an old saying: "Bring earth to heaven and heaven to earth." This is really what we are about as recovering materialists. So how do we do this? Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Review: Lord of Light

Lord of Light is a classic science-fiction work by Roger Zelazny. The setting is a future colonized planet. A few people have figured out how to make themselves immortal, and are worshiped by the rest as gods. The "gods" keep technology to themselves because they think the general population isn't ready for it. The main character, Sam, has been brought back from Nirvana in order to fight for the general public against the "gods" in order to make technology accessible to everyone.

The reason I decided to review this book is the following quote:

Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken.

This is what we are aiming at. Recovery from materialism is not really about renouncing wealth, the 4000-square-foot house, the luxury car, and so forth. Most people who want those things don't really want them for themselves. They want them to impress their friends, or themselves. These things are success symbols, and that's OK. Nothing is wrong with these things per se. The problem is that some people want them mainly to prove to themselves that they've made it; they can't really "be somebody" without those things.

The real goal of recovery is to be yourself, instead what you think you are or what you think you should be. Only after you do that can you really decide if you want the McMansion and the Lexus. And it will be you making the decision instead of the theoretical conception of yourself that you carry around with you.