Category Archives: Reviews

Real World Ethics

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My ongoing examination of leadership and community dynamics in this blog dovetails nicely with teaching ethics classes at Cherry Hill Seminary. I never imagined teaching an ethics course, but was asked to step in mid-semester four years ago when a faculty change left the Boundaries and Ethics class without a professor.

That year I played catch-up, learning the material while teaching it and facilitating class discussions. As an educator this is never a comfortable position to be in, but I found that I loved the topic and kept studying after the class was over. Since then I have taught the class twice, each time making minor improvements in the curriculum. Now I think I am ready to do a full-scale revamping of the course.

But first we need a good basic text.

The course needs to bridge historical and modern Pagan thought on ethics, and present methodologies for making ethical decisions in chaplaincy, pastoral, and community settings. I want my students to start with their personal (both observed and first-hand) experiences with Pagan leadership, community and group dynamics, filter it through a study of ethical criteria and guidelines developed by various religious and secular organizations, and come up with a code of conduct for themselves going forward in their private and professional lives.

Make an Ethical Difference

I have been scouring the market for books to use the next time I teach the course, and am happy to report that we have a new front-runner! Mark Pastin’s new book Making an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action is a great introduction to thinking ethically in difficult situations.

Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, draws on his experience as advisor to corporations and NGOs worldwide to shape the book, starting each chapter with a new dilemma and using it to illustrate how to think about similar situations. Make an Ethical Difference presents five tools for sharpening your ethical sense:

  1. Read the Ground Rules
  2. Reason Backward to Find the Interests
  3. Face the Facts 
  4. Stand in the Shoes
  5. The Global Benefit Approach

While these are excellent practices for making our own ethical choices, applying them to a situation with multiple parties involved is much trickier. Fortunately, Pastin has what he calls “The Convergence Process,” designed “to increase the alignment of the ethics eyes of those directly involved in a situation requiring action.” In other words, getting people to share outlooks and be willing to change their views—including your own. It is a powerful approach involving transparency and great communication skills.

A book like this is the perfect guide to keep nearby when the inevitable occurs and humans get into conflicts. I will be referring to it myself in the months to come, taking Pastin’s tools for a test drive in my current ethics class and out in the real world as well.

Meanwhile, does anybody have other favorite ethics texts to recommend?

The Problem With Loving Nature

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I always appreciate a chance to refine my thinking in areas where I have a lot of strong opinions, and the confluence of spirituality, nature, and politics is one such place. Reading Bron Taylor’s excellent new book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, has given me that chance.

I read most of this book while in British Columbia, teaching a group of 90+ people at a Reclaiming camp, the theme of which included “listening to the land, to sense the coming shift.” In spite of my misgivings about the theme, I thoroughly enjoyed the camp and the friends I was teaching with, and in our planning process we had several lively discussions that helped me refine even further my thoughts on the issues raised in Dark Green Religion.

As soon as I got back from all that travel I interviewed Bron on Dream Talk Radio, so I pretty much unloaded onto him all the thoughts I’d had throughout the previous week. Whether you have read the book or not, I would love to hear your comments about our discussion, so without further ado here is the podcast.

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Two Great Books on Dreams

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I have had the distinct pleasure over the past few months of immersing myself in some wise and erudite books on dreams. Here, rising to the top of the pile, are two books that I consider essential to the serious study of dreams in history and practice.

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The first is by Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and author of many worthy books on dreams. Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History (2008, New York University Press) is a book that finally answers the basic question: how did people in ancient cultures view dreams?

I call this a basic question, because anyone who spends a significant amount of time working with their dreams inevitably wonders how it was done in the past. In your religion, in other religions; by your ancestors, by other people’s ancestors. Dreams call us to understand our place in the world, and Kelly’s book answers the call because it addresses the problem with both comprehensive scholarship and also a deep love and appreciation for dreams.

In the book’s first three chapters, Kelly covers Hinduism, the religions of China (mostly Confucianism and Taoism), and Buddhism. He then branches out to the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Judaism), the religions of Greece and Rome, then Christianity, and Islam. In the final three chapters, we learn about the religions of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. A whirlwind tour to be sure, but with Kelly’s flair for laying out a clear overview combined with meticulous attention to detail, one is left after each chapter with the feeling of having had an excellent introduction to a fascinating, and ever-changing subject.

This book is required reading for my class at Cherry Hill Seminary on using dreams in spiritual direction. It gives the student of Pagan religions a valuable sense of perspective, and the student of dreams a glimpse at the rich possibilities for dream interpretation and understanding in the continuing evolution of our dreaming minds. I highly recommend it.

childrens_cover2The second book is not new at all, but is certainly new to us. Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936–1940 (Princeton University Press, 2008) is the English translation (finally!) of a seminar conducted by Carl Jung with some of his more advanced pupils, and is the most accessible, understandable presentation of Jung’s dream theories  that I have ever read.

Here we have the master in action, explaining his theories and then showing in great detail how he applies them, using examples of his patients’ earliest remembered dreams. In the first chapter, Jung lays out all of his methods of dream interpretation, which is invaluable in itself but also helps focus the later chapters, as each dream analysis follows the steps first introduced here.

Each of the later chapters include his students (among them Marie-Louise Von Franz, Aniela Jaffe, and Jolande Jacobi) presenting a dream or dream series, then analyzing them using Jung’s rubric. Jung makes comments, clarifies ideas and answers his students’ questions. The conversational style highlights Jung’s skill as an educator, and reading it one has the sense of witnessing the development, there in that room, of the practice of analytical psychology. It is a fascinating and inspiring ride.

This beautiful English edition of Children’s Dreams was a project of the Philemon Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing into book form Jung’s unpublished works. The Philemon Foundation also facilitated the publication of Jung’s Red Book last year; they do beautiful work. Children’s Dreams will make you realize just how much of your ideas about dreams are from Jung, and at the same time will show you just how little of Jung you really understand. I find the combination exhilarating; I am sure you will too.

An Essential Study

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Phillip Zarrilli’s new book may have a title that only a theater critic could love, but the body of his work deserves to be known and practiced by a much wider audience—and in terms of this blog’s readership, I am referring to anybody involved in the expressive or healing arts, ministry, ceremony, or public speaking.

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Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski is about the core of all effective expression: aligning will, mind, and subtle physical energies so that they meld seamlessly with our actions. Zarrilli has made a lifelong study of how breath, awareness, focus and movement conjoin to create believable performance, but his inquiry goes deeper than that: he is after a level of performance and presence where “the body becomes all eyes,” and one is “standing still yet not standing still.” (Disclosure: Phillip is also a cool family friend.)

His is much more an Eastern sensibility than a Western one, and Zarrilli bases his training method in large part on an intensive study of the South Indian martial art kalarippayattu, a practice that requires power and precision along with expanded attention and awareness. To the physical forms of kalarippayattu, Phillip has added breathwork and movement based on yoga and taiqiquan to create “a complementary set of psychophysical disciplines that begins and ends each day of training with a series of simple, breath-control exercises.”

The core of the book is a close and careful explanation of the exercises Phillip uses in his trainings, starting with the breath and then moving into different modes of embodied experience. The exercises and concepts used in the book are amplified to great effect by the accompanying DVD-ROM, which is very well done and adds extended video and audio clips that demonstrate what his hands-on work looks like in training and performance.

Pagan religions are all about embodiment—the immanence of the Divine in nature and in ourselves, the omnipresence of the spirits and the ancestors, Gods and Goddesses. With such a multi-layered world view, it always surprises me how very little we know about actual embodiment, let alone practice it in our rituals, celebrations, even in private meditations.

To some extent this lack is being remedied by better training, but without in-depth models of what is possible and how to get there, we won’t progress very far. This book is an excellent manual for explaining just that. It is better suited to group than individual study, because these embodied states are extremely subtle and we need reliable external feedback to train them into our bodies. But anyone who is serious about improving their ritual skills should either consult this book, or work with someone who has.

Better yet, Phillip Zarrilli travels all over the place from his studio in West Wales, training people in his system of embodied performance. He is a wonderful resource, and very approachable. The enterprising group that hires him for a period of intensive or ongoing work would find that their time and money were well-spent. And the result would benefit far more than just themselves.

The Historicity of Dreaming

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That dreams have been influential in many pivotal episodes in history is accepted as fact in some circles; in other circles it is considered nonsense. Yet for anyone bothering to dig into the archives, it becomes indisputable that many important figures over time and across disciplines have been guided by their nighttime dreams—and have changed the course of history in the process.

Secret History of DreamingIf you have ever wondered where to find a worthy compendium of these stories, with footnotes and resources for further investigation, look no further than Robert Moss’s new book The Secret History of Dreaming. Not only is this a fascinating book of historical treasures, it is also a great read. Moss is a consummate storyteller, and once you’ve read his version of Joan of Arc as a tree seer, you will soon want to hurry forward and learn more about the incredibly detailed, accurate dreams that guided Harriet Tubman on her rescue missions.

From then it is just a short hop to Mark Twain’s prophetic dreams and visions, which informed his comedy but gave his life a tragic cast. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s wild dreams, featured by Jung in his book Psychology and Alchemy, bleed into the waking life synchronicities of this eccentric genius. And then there are Winston Churchill’s time machines, and the young 15th century noblewoman Lucrecia de León, the “dream spy” of Madrid.

This book reads like historical fiction, and for good reason. Before he began writing exclusively about dreams and active imagination Robert Moss had a successful career as a fiction writer, most notably with The Firekeeper: A Narrative of the Eastern Frontier (newly re-issued by SUNY Press). His fiction relies heavily on actual or at least plausible events and entanglements, and he is a diligent researcher of historical setting. His writing style in The Secret History of Dreaming may strike some as more imagination than history, but it works quite well for bringing the very real power of dreaming to the attention of a wide audience.

Moss calls his particular method of fleshing out the bones of a story “dream archaeology.” It involves being able “to read all the clues from a scene in another time, enter that scene, and then bring back new discoveries that will stand up to cross-examination.” After doing a thorough study of all related historical sources and getting a feel for the details of the period and culture, the dream archaeologist uses some rather familiar tools to fill in the gaps of his knowledge:

Through the arts of conscious dream travel, active imagination, and “mutual visioning,” we can enter other times and gain firsthand knowledge of conditions there that we can then research and verify…. We can reclaim the best of ancient traditions and rituals in authentic, helpful, and timely ways.

Here lies the crux of not only Moss’s method of storytelling, but his convictions about the importance of dreaming to human evolution as well as his vision of the future of dreaming. Moss is adamant that “dreaming is a vital understory in the human odyssey,” and he makes the case quite well, citing cross-cultural examples throughout history where dreaming has been both a survival skill and an integral part of daily life.

I am in agreement with Moss that we can make much better use of our dreams today: to help us weather societal, familial and personal crises, be alerted to health issues before they become serious, and communicate with loved ones near and far, alive and dead. (To name just a few possibilities.) His previous books on dreaming lay out some useful techniques and guidelines for pursuing this kind of work, developing one’s intuition and learning how to both ask questions and receive answers from the web of energy all around us, including our dreams.

He never fully explains what he hopes to achieve through these methods of creative scrying, however. In his epilogue on “The Future History of Dreaming,” Moss gets specific about the necessary “return of the seer,” as he puts it. He outlines three basic types of seer: the receivers, the travelers, and the far-seers. Receivers are mediums and empaths, receiving information, filtering it, and passing it on. Travelers engage in out of body experiences and soul journeys. Far-seers widen their inner sight and use the instantaneous power of thought to be everywhere at once, yet never leaving the body.

But to what end? How will a world filled with psychic/shamanic adepts be fundamentally better, or even different, than the world we have today? The one thing I never hear Robert Moss admit in his almost uniformly optimistic vision is that people are people. He may have traveled back to ancient Greece and found that “from the moment a pilgrim entered an Asklepian temple, he was given constant encouragement to believe that healing was available and to abandon old mental habits and self-defeating attitudes.” But I went there too, and found that not everyone in the dream priesthood was great at what they did. And while some miraculous healings did take place, there was also a powerful social expectation that pilgrims would declare themselves healed, even if they weren’t. 

The dirty little secret of the human potential movement is that even if we all develop to our fullest potential, our society will still not be perfect. Theocracy is just an election away, as we have seen quite recently. And as important (and rare) as true dreamers and healers are, it is just as important for a healthy, just society to have people who can establish good public policy and make the trains run on time.

I personally am quite relieved that I don’t live in ancient Greece, or any number of dream-centered tribal societies. I want to live in a functioning democracy where women and men have equal rights, and I also want strong dreamers to aid and support the quality of life for all. I don’t see any clear way to get there from Robert Moss’s vision, partly because the dreamers he talks about were mostly outsiders. This may in fact be the “natural” social position for the vast majority of those who take up the call and develop their own capacity to dream. 

And so, those of us who help people pay attention to their dreams are faced with a conundrum: How do we encourage people to explore the healing, liberating, transformational power of dreaming consciousness, while at the same time remaining realistic about the limits of change? How do we strive for the best result while being unattached to outcome? And most crucially, how can dreaming support the overall social goals to which we aspire? These are questions I would love to hear Moss respond to.

Robert Moss writes with unflagging optimism and energy, spinning flax into gold as he weaves his web of stories, reassuring the reader at every turn that the future of dreaming is bright. I have had that dream too, and I believe it. Yet it doesn’t answer all my questions.

Living La Vida Virtuosa

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That’s “the virtuous life,” for those of you like me who are not proficient in Spanish. The subject has been on my mind lately as I finish reading Brendan Myers’s recent book The Other Side of Virtue. It has taken me a long time, partly because it is a new subject for me. Paganism as we know is long on other_side_of_virtue_coverspontaneity and very light on anything which requires concentrated, sustained thought. This book demands it however, and rightly so. It suggests a way to live that is radically different from the way most of us view our lives, and which bring us into accord with some of the great minds of Western civilization—those famous Pagan philosophers and heroes most of us know very little about.

When I first saw the title I was confused, because I had never considered that virtue might have more than one side. Wouldn’t the other side of virtue be simply a lack of virtue, or a life spent actively refuting its importance? Now I know better, as the title is meant to identify mainstream values like Faith, Hope, Obedience, Charity, Humility, and Chastity as largely Christian virtues. In contrast to these “passive virtues” Myers then takes us through the “other side” of virtue: those values and character traits which arose earlier in Heroic and Classical societies, had a resurgence during the Renaissance and Romantic periods, and are surfacing yet again in various forms—in short, he introduces the reader to Pagan virtues.

Myers digs deep into the Greek, Germanic, Irish and Norse sagas to build his depiction of Heroic virtues such as fortune, friendship, honor, courage, trust, hope, magic, and atonement. He then moves into Classical society, where he finds reason, courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. Moving ever onward, he visits the virtues espoused in Renaissance art and humanism, and in the writings of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, the Romantics, Nietzsche, and for good measure ends with the more modern take on virtue expressed by Tolkein and J.K. Rowling. (Spoiler alert: they may be such popular authors because they revive the old virtues which still resonate deeply in the population.)

If someone had asked me previously what qualities I considered virtuous, I would have named honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, and maybe humor. But virtues have often felt like extra credit assignments to me. We aim for leading a good life, and if we manage to hit a few of the virtues along the way, more’s the better. Perhaps this laissez faire attitude is a generational trait, but it might be a larger cultural issue.

Growing up my favorite jigsaw puzzle was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, with gleefully cartoonish faces in 1920’s attire depicting sloth, avarice, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, and wrath. They all looked like they were having a fine time, though one might gather that too much of a good thing could harm one’s looks. How telling that I can still remember almost the entire list off the top of my head, yet had no idea what the corresponding biblical Seven Virtues were until I read about them in Myers’s book.

The other thing we as a culture know about virtues is that those who espouse them are usually guilty of the worst sorts of hypocrisy: witness former Education Secretary William Bennett, whose best-selling Book of Virtues belied the fact that he himself is a compulsive gambler who has lost millions. Or poor Ted Haggard, that paragon of God-fearing, anti-gay religiosity who fell from his pulpit when it was revealed that he had a thing for gay sex with hookers and speed. In a crazy world with no real moral compass, it is usually the one shouting the loudest for people to follow his compass that we should trust the least.

Myers acknowledges that he is not broaching a popular subject. Yet he lays out his case for following the ancient virtues—and some new ones stemming from contemporary Pagan experience—with patience and clarity. Though the subject may be dense with literary and philosophical references, the book is written in an accessible, almost conversational style. Myers knows (and laments, to some extent) that when he speaks to his fellow Pagans, it is to an audience largely ignorant of and unaccustomed to the thinking of our learned forebears.

Today’s Paganism is replete with varied customs, devotions, and ritual recipes. We put on a pretty good festival, but are we ready to tackle philosophy? Or, to put it another way: given the tremendous influence Pagan ideas are currently having on the larger culture, what can we put forward that best exemplifies our core values? How do we believe a good life is lived, no matter one’s religion?

Myers writes:

The origin of virtue itself…is in the dynamic meeting between our ideas of who we are, and the various events and experiences that call these ideas into question. (pg. 155)

Times being what they are, we will have plenty of opportunities to ponder those big questions in the months to come. Read Brendan Myers’s book, especially the last section where he proposes some newer virtues. Then think about it, and if your ideas don’t match his figure out why that is. Make philosophy a topic of normal conversation. I don’t know whether the world needs another Socrates or Aristotle, but it would be a shame to cede the position to another religion, just because we were too busy blogging to wade back into the deep end after all these centuries.

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Riding In Your Slipstream

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The first ecstatic/musical/lucid dream I remember happened when I was about 15 or 16. At that time, I was the principal bassoonist for the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and my life was strung with a pattern of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, after-parties, and more rehearsals. It was a good life, a great orchestra, and our conductor Denis DeCoteau knew exactly how to coax the best music from our hearts and souls. We had a dynamism and group energy that many older orchestras lacked, and I remember many ecstatic moments in our playing together. I sometimes felt, as my breath coursed through my instrument with every note, that not just my part but the whole piece was playing through me. The resonance of every part seemed to vibrate within each of us, and just by breathing together we made the music flow.

At that time, the city of Oakland was renovating the beautiful Paramount Theater, an Art Deco wonder in the center of downtown. By some fluke of scheduling, OSYO was the first group to hold a concert in the newly re-opened theater. As the curtain call approached, we lucky teenagers whispered nervously and peeked through the heavy velvet hanging at the back of the stage, watching our audience enter the hall.audwalls

Then it was time to play and we filed silently onto the stage with our instruments, professional and serious in concert black, as a gentle patter of applause rose from the plush seats below. From the stage the theater looked like a giant gilded music box, all gold leaf and tapestry, with titans and goddesses sculpted on every surface. Denis lifted his baton, and the surging of strings and jewel-toned brass slowly brushed over every surface, collecting in corners and rising to the rafters until the whole hall was filled with sound and the aging theater woke from its slumber to witness our musical offering.

Shortly after this I dreamed that:

I am backstage at the Paramount, and there is another orchestra on stage. The curtain is drawn so I can’t see them, but I am enraptured by the music they are playing. It is nothing I recognize, part Debussy and part Beethoven, with strains of Mahler, Shostakovich, and here and there a hint of Mozart or Dvořák. It is such a fluid sound that just as I try to pin it down, it changes into something completely different and I am newly enraptured. Then I realize that I am not reacting emotionally to the music, it is reacting to me, shaping itself according to my shifting moods. I am somehow composing this mysterious, complex and beautiful piece in every moment! It is a huge revelation, and wakes me up.

Like a music box itself I marveled at this dream, and have kept it on a high shelf since then, taking it down now and then to wind up and listen to once again. I have kept in mind its advice, too, and slowly through my adulthood have learned to act as though I were composing my own life, not just reacting to what was around me.

Two nights ago, I found myself by a tricksterish fluke in the orchestra seats of the Paramount at the first of three nights of Leonard Cohen concerts. I had ordered balcony tickets but that’s not what we got, so after freaking out about money for a few minutes, my friend and I went ahead and took our seats way down in “industry row.” It was a very good move, because that was the most remarkable concert I have ever experienced. Ever.

Leonard Cohen has spent a lifetime writing with scathing honesty, clarity, and wit about the range of human experience. His finely crafted songs stand on their own, each word placed just so to reflect light over to the next verse, where the same thought comes back again but this time with a snap and a shock of something unexpected. Most artists with his catalog of songs would wear them like medals, letting their gleam be the first thing one sees upon entering the room. Yet somehow, maybe through years of Zen Buddhist practice, Cohen has separated himself from his songs. He looks on their lives with wry amusement and a deep tenderness, knowing they are not him but being able to completely surrender himself to them the moment the song begins.

Lea Suzuki/SF ChronicleI have never seen someone sing with such passion and emptiness. He is like a reed through which the song blows, and yet he is present in every slow syllable of its passing. When it has fully passed, he takes a deep bow and returns to stillness, just himself, surrounded by the exquisite musicians that share the stage with him. Though he was obviously the master, they all stayed with him on the journey through each song, and every part was played with such precision and care that it took my breath away.

And there I was again, in the music box dream. This man was actually doing consciously, for an entire three-hour show, what I had dreamt about once, and only for a split second. The theater walls gently held his testament to the beauty and transience of life, and my heart rattled in its rib cage as I was pulled gently along into the flow of music by the power and artistry of his performance.

I don’t expect to see another show like that in my lifetime. There is simply no artist I can think of who matches Cohen on all fronts: poetry, voice, grace, wisdom, humility, passion, humor. Two days later, I still feel transformed by the experience. Yet it is not just the concert that has me energized. Out of the blue, the lid to my music box dream was lifted and music came pouring out. Only this time it wasn’t a memory, it was in real time. And I am still reeling from that unexpected convergence.

Who knows? Maybe a song will come from it someday.

Courageous Dreaming? Really?

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This book, Courageous Dreaming: How Shamans Dream the World Into Being, caught my eye a year ago in a local bookstore, so I requested a review copy from the publisher. Now, before I get into reviewing the book I need to say something about Hay House Publishers. courageousdreaming

I both admire and am horrified by Hay House. As a publicity and marketing machine, they are unparalleled. Their self-help authors can publish companion CDs, DVDs, card decks and calendars to complement book sales, and get virtually unlimited exposure on their internet radio station and Hay House-sponsored tours and events. I wish more mainstream publishers had the marketing zazz of Hay House.

On the other hand, there is everything else. Hay House has singlehandedly ruined the sky blue/lavender color scheme, for one. Almost all of their products and many of their authors’ websites are invested heavily in this look, which I guess is designed to evoke calm, timeless wisdom unsullied by earthly bodies or the misery of the unenlightened. Yet as a result of its overuse, I find myself automatically bracing for bad writing and dubious content as soon as I spot it.

Hay House is the baby of Louise Hay, famous for declaring that we create our own reality and then proceeding to defend her philosophy even in the face of the most egregious human circumstances. Mutilation and abuse? Yup, if we experienced it we created it. Poverty and starvation? Double yup.

What she lacks in ethics and discernment she makes up for in sheer chutzpah however, by declaring that Hay House is a significant contributor to planetary healing. As a result of all this, it is impossible for me to separate any book published by her from the fact that it was published by Hay House.

Alberto Villoldo was at one time a student and colleague of Stanley Krippner, a man whose research on dreams, shamanism and consciousness I greatly admire. Sadly, that association is not enough for me to give Villoldo’s book a glowing review. The author’s bio reveals that he left his clinical psych position at San Francisco State to pursue an apprenticeship with Amazonian healers. One wishes that he had not left quite so much behind when he set out on his quest.

Villoldo’s prose is ponderous, and the points he makes are riddled with flaws. (Chapter Five begins with this gem: “As a species, we humans are very intrepid.” Medic!) Basically he presents a story of how we as individuals and a culture have fallen from grace, how we are suckling at the teat of an empty materialistic dream, and how our only chance of survival is to awaken to the wisdom of what he calls the “Earthkeepers.”

He never gets specific about exactly who the Earthkeepers are, but he seems to refer mostly to the Inca shamans he has developed relationships with, and to whom he regularly goes on expeditions with students and fellow seekers. Yet at different times he also lumps Amazonian shamans, sub-Saharan African medicine men, Taoist sages, and ancient Greek philosophers into this same group of Earthkeepers. Keeping up with all his rhetorical sleight-of-hand made this reader cranky.

Fortunately for us, we need not wonder about the specifics of who the Earthkeepers are, because Villoldo is here to translate their messages for us. Hence blanket statements like Chapter Nine’s opener: “The Earthkeepers believe that to live fully and dream courageously, we must wake up each morning and live this day as if it were our last.”

For all its hype the book has some ideas that may help some people. It is ironic, though, that underneath its shamanic trappings the meat of the book is comprised of fairly standard psychological ideas and re-treads of The Four Agreements. Villoldo gives us the Earthkeepers’ four types of courage: Jaguar, Hummingbird, Serpent and Eagle. These correspond to the mind, the soul, the actions, and the spirit. He also seems to say that they each affect a different building-block of human DNA, though I will spare you a thorough review of all his specious scientific references.

Never mind that he constantly makes sweeping generalizations to bolster his case. In the end, his message is simply that we need to be courageous enough to follow our dreams and hold fast even when obstacles are thrown in our path. He advises us to be creative, reject perfectionism, reject grandiosity, study our dream symbols, be mindful and truthful, live in integrity, remember to laugh, forgive and forget, and be grateful. I’ll bet the Earthkeepers agree.

The Weave of Words

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One of the most profound spiritual experiences I ever had was during a guided meditation led by Andrew Harvey. I was taking a class from him on my way to earning a doctorate, and the instruction he gave us was quite simple but changed completely my orientation to Spirit.

Basically, we went on an inner journey through a specific landscape, and then got to a place where we came face to face with our image of the Divine. Being asked the question, “What does the Divine look like to you?” threw me into complete confusion. I had a whole Rolodex of images of God/dess, beginning with the Christian God of my youth, and extending into all the Deities I had encountered and worked with over many years. I literally imagined rifling through the card file, trying on each image in succession. Brigid? No. Jesus? No. Lugh? No. Yemaya? No. Snowy-bearded God guy? No.

This was getting interesting. None of the faces I knew of deity fit when I tried to imagine that fire at the center of my heart, which felt like my connection to Spirit. So what was it, that connection? What was I connecting to? When I focused on the sensation, gradually a wholly unexpected image drifted to the surface of my mind. It was a golden, shining being, androgynous, more light than substance, and shifting so that I could see all those other images in it, but none could encompass it. Compared to this Presence, my whole Rolodex was like a closet of used clothing.

Somehow I had managed to reach forty years of age while avidly studying, learning, and teaching others about spirituality, without being asked or asking myself that simple question. How was that possible? What other tremendous insights was I overlooking, by not taking the time to ask seemingly obvious questions? I had no explanation for this bizarre oversight in my spiritual education, but that experience taught me the importance of starting at the core and proceeding outward, rather than beginning on the outside with a story or image and bringing it in.

I have had the pleasure recently of lingering with a book that asks these seemingly obvious questions in a probing yet open-handed way. Like Catching Water in a Net: Human Attempts to Describe the Divine, by Val Webb, is a very readable, thoughtful consideration of why and how we name our experience of Spirit. Webb, a theologian, scientist, and Religious Studies lecturer in Australia, digs deep into Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Aboriginal, and Christian texts and images to illustrate some of the ways humans have answered those big questions over time.

Webb’s writing style is very clear and straightforward. She weaves together history, scripture, philosophy, and theology in a way that does not favor the academic or the  poetic, but rather draws both to the table. I recommend this book highly to anyone who would like to delve more deeply into their own conceptions of Spirit, and those like me who have always been curious about the genesis of certain religious ideas and assumptions, but were looking for the right book on the subject to come along. This is the book.

That Pound of Flesh

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As a dreamworker, I estimate that roughly 75% of my clients have their questions answered satisfactorily using the tools of dream interpretation. Another 25% have concerns that are not completely resolved by looking at the content of their dreams. These folks are usually coping with some kind of sleep disturbance, and need to know how to get a good night’s sleep so that they can remember more of their dreams.

The field of sleep medicine is growing as more people experience insomnia, chronic nightmares, sleep apnea, and other issues that interfere with their dreaming and overall functioning. With these folks in mind, I have been reading up on ways to cultivate restorative sleep. Among the many websites I have traversed, the National Sleep Foundation has lots of informative articles and links to sleep centers across the country.

There are also some interesting books on the subject that have come out recently. Among them is one which on the surface seems completely unrelated, even frivolous, yet contains some valuable information on the ins and outs of getting good quality sleep.

I am still working on being able to say (or write) the title of this book without wincing, but here goes: Sleep Away the Pounds: Optimize Your Sleep and Reset Your Metabolism for Maximum Weight Loss. There, I almost did it. Maybe it will be easier next time…then again, maybe not.

Unfortunate title aside, the book’s main point is that one of the main side effects of not getting good sleep is that your metabolism gets out of whack and you end up at greater risk for a host of health problems, including obesity. Addressing sleep disturbances is a key but often overlooked process for losing weight or maintaining your current weight.

The most valuable contribution of this book is that it presents a well-rounded picture of how to achieve a restful night’s sleep, covering nutrition, allergy control, nighttime routines, relaxation and meditation, supplements, exercise, and more. Their section with practical tips for getting good sleep goes on for fourteen solid pages. (p. 29-43) The sleep information is followed by a thorough section on reducing stress in general, then moves on to treating insomnia and other sleep problems, before talking about diet plans. But if you’re not interested in dieting and just need information to help you sleep, there is still plenty you can get out of this book.

The authors, Cherie and John Calbom, suggest a reasonable method for determining how much sleep you actually need. They give a detailed description of the hormones that are most affected by sleep deprivation, and describe the physiology of sleep in a clear, comprehensible way. In fact, all of the information in the book is presented in a very readable manner.

I admit that I only skimmed the “21-Day Sleep Away the Pounds Menu Plan” chapter, but it looks like it’s got some practical, common-sense advice as well. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, despite some overwrought marketing copy in the first couple chapters, and would definitely recommend it to people who want a general introduction to getting better sleep. The authors have done a service for dreamworkers and sleep professionals in general by highlighting the importance of restorative sleep for our overall health and functioning, both at night and during the day.