Tuesday, June 30, 2015

“Of Sound and Inner Light”: A Review of Healing with God’s Love: Kabbalah’s Hidden Secrets, Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer with Peggy Bagley

 (Larson Publications, 2015, the www.larsonpublications.com). ISBN 978-1-936012-74-9

This has been an impressive few years for Larson Publications. While continuing to bring the works of philosopher Paul Brunton to a new generation of readers, they have published such moving titles as Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love, which recently won the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award for Aging/Death & Dying and the book that is the subject of this review. Larson continues to provide its readership with profound and life-altering books on spirituality, ritual, healing, and enlightenment.

Healing with God’s Love is a practical, highly readable guide to healing meditations and rituals derived from the Judaic esoteric practices of the Kabbalah. Although I was familiar with the Kabbalah, and the Tree of Life (the Sefirot), Rabbi Goldhamer provides sufficient background and explanation for those not familiar with its principles and practices.

First, a bit about the author (who shares authorship with his wife). Rabbi Goldhamer, who also holds a PhD, helped to found Chicago’s Congregation Bene Shalom, is a professor of Jewish mysticism, and president of Hebrew Seminary. Nearly 40 years ago, he suffered from a disease called Klippel Trenaunay syndrome, a “debilitating vascular disorder which impeded [his] ability to walk” (11). Facing possible amputation of both legs, he invested his energy and belief in the healing power of prayer, and a year later, he was healed.

As a student and practitioner for 15 years of mantra-based meditation practice, using Sanskrit, I believe in, and have experienced the power of, the vibrational qualities of letters and words, and how they affect internal and external energies (the section in the book that deals with the “Law of Sympathetic Vibration” links these Kabbalist practices with a larger world of spirituality and science regarding the chakras and studies of the heart by organizations like HeartMath). Rabbi Goldhamer provides ample explanation and illustrative tables to explain the energies, designs, and meanings of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Although I was familiar with the sacred power of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) because of the sound healing work of composer Jonathan Goldman, I learned a great deal about the other letters of the Hebrew alphabet over the course of the book.

Rabbi Goldhamer also educates the reader about the necessity of breath work for potent meditation, visualization, and healing, comparing the Jewish word for breath, Ru’ach, to the Chinese chi and the Sanskrit prana (crossing religious boundaries is a strength of the book, and reflects the philosophy of the publisher as well; more of this is needed in our divisive, intolerant world). Although my knowledge and practice of breathing techniques (developed in my spiritual practice as well as my work as a performer and in training actors) was helpful as I experimented with the meditations in the book, there is plenty of guidance for the novice.

Another strength of the book is the Rabbi’s continual discussion of the nature of (false) dualities such as spiritual and physical; male and female; God and man; reality and dream and other “non-real” states, rightly pointing out that such perceptual falsities put us in a fractured state where sickness and disease can thrive.

Everything I have mentioned thus far provides the necessary foundation to begin practicing the abundant meditations offered step by step in the book, and Rabbi Goldhamer not only reinforces these foundational elements throughout, he provides an overview, through anecdotes and scholarship, of a continuum of scholars and practitioners of the Kabbalah, including his own mentors, going back thousands of years, and describes how the meditations have been modified over time.

Other interesting aspects of the book are the Rabbi’s paintings, which are interspersed throughout; his touching upon gematria, the science of converting letters to numbers, which decode the deeper meanings in the ancient texts (for those interested in this fascinating aspect of sacred texts, I recommend Jesus, Sun of God, by Don Fideler); the notion that when you pray, you should pray as if your prayers are already answered (a main tenant of Paul Brunton’s “Short Path to Enlightenment”); and the holographic principles of the Kabbalah, which makes a good case for the relevance of quantum physics to our overall spiritual lives.

The highest compliment I can pay to Rabbi Goldhamer and Healing with God’s Love is that this will be not just a book read, reviewed, and put on a shelf, but a handbook that I will return to time and again throughout the rest of my life. For those looking for, or experienced in, alternative healing modalities or for storytellers and performing artists wanting to better understand sound and energy and how they can enhance the creative experience and the effect upon an audience, reading and working with this book is a must.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Numinous Nature: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Sometimes I Think I Am Like Water

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Smoky Zeidel’s captivating novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet, also published by Thomas-Jacob.
Sometimes I Think I Am Like Water, a collection of poems, once again showcases Zeidel’s craftsmanship and her deep connection to nature and the importance of ritual communion with it. What I enjoyed most was the way the poems create a dynamic tension between formalized religious rituals and the direct experience of the sacred and numinous found in spiritual practices tied to the flora and fauna all around us. It’s better still where they merge, such as in “Crescent Meadow,” with its “cathedral of Giant Sequoias” and the multi-level meanings assigned to “communion” in poems such as “My Heaven.”
“How to Read a River,” the opening poem, operates as an invocation. “You have to learn how to read a river/before you can safely cross it,” are the opening lines, and  the third from last is, “Take my hand and we’ll cross this one together.”
I am better for having accepted the invitation.
The poem “I’ve Always Thought I Am Like Water,” which reminds me of the sentiment and power of Pete Townshend’s ballad “The Sea Refuses No River,” contrasts the fluidity of water with the immovability of granite. Having grown up at the Jersey shore, by the ever-renewing ocean, I experienced this dichotomy when I moved to the desert in Arizona when I was almost 30, in the shadow of mountains that are unchanged after millions of years. That moment of realization, similar to the experiences in David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, enlightened me to the profound power of our surroundings, and affected the path of my life in profound ways.
“Epiphany” is a poem that operates like a prayer, unlocking entry into a meditative state of connection with nature, where the participant can move to a resonant level of energetic collaboration where we “learn being alive is not the same as living.”
“Falling into the Stars” reminds me of the “focused nala” meditations taught by Hawaiian shamans, which help remove the perceived barriers between our senses and a full experience of nature, where we can hear the sounds beneath the sounds we normally focus on and see nature operating on an almost microscopic level (a psychedelic experience without the psychedelics). Zeidel writes of “setting my vision to soft focus,/ … soon I would find myself/sinking into the earth,/drifting into an open-eyed sleep.”
Again reminding me of Abrams are several instances in the poems, such as in “Falling into the Stars,” where nature’s artistic contributions to our everyday lives are invoked: “gray squirrels/chittering a lullaby finer than anything/Brahms ever wrote.” How different this experience of squirrels is from the way they are perceived in suburbia: as intrusive nuisances to be disposed of.
The collection ends with a final poem, titled “Hush,” that closes the circle created by the opening invocation. Having journeyed through the woods, conversed with the flora and fauna by the rivers and in the trees, contemplated death, and engaged in ritual, the author asks us to “Be silent./Be still./Listen./Hush.”
What a beautiful, all too rare sentiment from a writer and storyteller.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Psychopaths, Puppets, and Presley: A Review of Eric Fritzius’s A Consternation of Monsters

(Mister Herman’s Publishing Company, 2015, misterherman.com). ISBN: 978-0692428511
By Joey Madia
In the novel Minor Confessions of an Angel Falling Upward, by Planner Forthright (which I was enlisted, against my better judgment, to edit some years ago), he writes “The most dangerous monsters … have no fangs or claws, drink no blood, live in Light, and fear no rosary or silver bullet symbols. … They wear lilac aprons and cook fresh okra in stain-proof, modern kitchens. Their names are recorded on a driver’s license and certificate of birth. They aren’t the swamp and coffin types. In certain tenuous moments they can be as sweetly consoling as the pie upon the sill.”
This same broad-based approach to what constitutes a “monster” is part of what makes this collection of ten short stories so appealing. In an age of zombies, vampires, and comic book supervillains taking over the pages of print and terabytes of the digital film age, it is refreshing to sit with a set of well-told tales and remember that Satan’s greatest achievement was making us think he doesn’t exist—although he does, everywhere, all the time, in the most unexpected forms.
Before I go into a little detail about my favorite stories (and, if it were not for space, I would talk favorably, rather than in passing, about them all), I have to mention that I’ve admired Eric Fritzius for many years. As a past president of West Virginia Writers, Inc. (for whom I’ve twice had the honor of teaching at their summer conference) and a continued driving force in their annual writing competition and efforts to promote the work of writers statewide, right along with his work in the theatre, Fritzius has been at the forefront of the arts in West Virginia. Add the fact that we both have selections in a recent collection published by Mountain State Press called Diner Stories: Off the Menu, and my desire to review his first collection of stories was considerable.
He certainly does not disappoint. Fritzius’s Vision and Voice are strong and the stories cover a wide range of tones and styles. I encourage the reader to NOT skip the Foreword (written by Rik Winston, host of UFO All Night), which is not only an entertaining read in and of itself, but sheds light on the choice of “Consternation” in the title. A choice that works perfectly well.
Many of the stories are West Virginia–centric in either their actual geography or in their overall tone and sensibilities. The companion pieces “The Hocco Makes the Echo” and “Puppet Legacy” are the best examples. Although not from WV, the past 8 years of living in a “holler” and traveling the state consistently made much of it familiar to me. “Old Country” has an interesting mix of the WV atmosphere with the Italian-American mafia, which is not as odd as it might initially sound. Thanks to the coal mining industry, many Italian immigrants found themselves in WV at the turn of the century, and the state has several excellent Italian Heritage festivals. The story offers a supernatural twist and plenty of suspense.
It is hard to do a book with a theme of the supernatural in WV without tackling the Mothman, as Fritzius does in “…to a Flame.” The legend of the Mothman, first seen by witnesses in Pt. Pleasant, WV in the late sixties, has been a rich subject area for supernatural researchers (I know several and have reviewed their books) and writers (I’ve used a variance on the Mothman in several of my works, and have a play based on Pt. Pleasant) and Fritzius contributes a well-researched and engaging story to the legacy.
Perhaps the most unique story in the collection is “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” where he tells the tale from the point of view of an alpha wolf in the desert. The descriptions of what the wolf sees, senses, and experiences are beautifully rendered. Fritzius’s technical skill is at full pitch.  The story pulls in a situation reminiscent of films like Two Days in the Valley and Seven Psychopaths, and manages a major mystery I am still trying to puzzle out a few weeks after reading.
Stories that are not WV-centric include one playing on myths of the Pacific northwest and another set of companion pieces, “The Wise Ones” and “Limited Edition,” which feature an intriguing old woman named Miss Zeddie at a cross-roads that connects a little taste of Stephen King’s Needful Things, a wonderful re-construction of Antiques Road Show, and a collection of well-drawn characters.
The subtlest monsters in Consternation appear in the story “The King’s Last Nacho,” which features an other-dimensional Elvis Presley watching Jerry “the King” Lawler (a wrestler who achieved fame through his “performance art” antics with Andy Kaufman) while a trench-coated agent (picture Eckhart from the first Burton Batman) from a highly bureaucratic Universe (that rich trope of writers from CS Lewis to Douglas Adams) bargains with the “other” king over stadium food. Like the Mothman story, this one shows abundant research on Fritzius’s part to give an authentic background of the intricate choreography and showmanship that is (quality) professional wrestling.
Collectively, Consternation operates to give us a nod and a wink about a much more sinister formulation of the Universe than mere angels and demons, which allows Fritzius the freedom to not lean on gore-n-scream horror tropes, but to play on familiar types and sub-genres in new, inventive, and entertaining ways.
For more information about the author and the process of writing A Consternation of Monsters, visit http://www.inspiration4writers.blogspot.com/2015/05/an-interview-with-editorauthor-eric.html and

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

“You Are Already Where You Should Be”: A Review of The Short Path to Enlightenment: Instructions for Immediate Awakening, a collection of Paul Brunton’s writings collected by Mark Scorelle and Jeff Cox

(Larson Publications, 2014, for the www.larsonpublications.com, for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation). ISBN 978-1-9360120-30-5

“You cannot acquire what is already here. So drop the ego’s false idea and affirm the real one” (p. 15)

I was first introduced to the work of philosopher Paul Brunton in 2012, when I was asked to review The Gift of Grace: Awakening to Its Presence. I found it to be a profound and moving read. The Short Path to Enlightenment, like the previous book, is compiled and administered by the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation (PBPF) and it culls passages from some of Brunton’s earlier publications.

Paul Brunton (1898–1981) was, like Joseph Campbell, of whom parts of his philosophy remind me, a student of the world’s sacred wisdom teachings. Trying to encapsulate his well and broadly lived life is nearly impossible in a book review, so I encourage the reader to spend some time researching Brunton on his or her own.

The Short Path to Enlightenment reminds us that we are already connected to Source, or a higher self, outside of Time and Space, which Brunton labeled the Overself, so there is, essentially, no gap between who we are and who we wish to be. What we need is Awareness of where we are. What I find most valuable, 12 years on in my own spiritual journey, is that there is no goal, per se, in our meditations and other rituals and disciplinary practices. To look for such things on what Brunton defines as the Long Path is to take Awareness from the Now and mis-invest it in a results-oriented approach that often leaves us frustrated and feeling like we will “never get there,” like we are somehow less worthy than the Enlightened ones in books and ashrams. Brunton also situates the Short Path in a place of Non-Duality, where the Ego and the Overself are no longer perceived at odds. How much damage has been done by the misunderstandings in so many spiritual and religious practices that tell us, falsely, that the Ego must be suppressed, obliterated? Brunton renders this misconception both dangerous and unnecessary, and that itself is reason enough to recommend this book.

To produce this edition, the editors have taken passages from the “posthumously published material in The Notebooks of Paul Brunton” (p. 8). The source category, chapter, and paragraph number are provided for each selection from the source material, which is available at paulbrunton.org/notebooks. Brunton’s writing can at times be dense and uses an older, formal syntax often found in the works of philosophers, so I find the Larson/PBPF books to be invaluable in making this material accessible, no matter your level of knowledge and practice. The editors have organized the material into chapters with titles such as “What is the Short Path?,” “The Ego & the Overself: ‘What Am I’”?, “Warnings on the Short Path,” and “Practices for the Short Path.” They have also provided a glossary for terms that might be unfamiliar to the reader. I consulted it several times.

The Short Path to Enlightenment is arranged in such a way to provide a fluid and balanced mix of theory and practice, both because of the work of the editors and because of Brunton’s approach. For those new to spiritual practice, the passages provide all of the essentials of non-attachment, visualization, manifestation, and the necessity of stillness and silence, but also how they lead to traps in the Long Path, because we wind up being results-oriented (how long we meditated, how deep we went, what “mystical” experiences were had, etc.) and engaging in the fruitless, self-harming attempt to battle our ego into submission.

The chapter “Awareness: Who Am I?” offers answers to many of the fundamental questions we are pursuing through spiritual discipline. When Brunton asks, “Am I here in the fleshly body or in the invisible mind?” (51) it reminds me of Joe Campbell’s “Are you the light bulb or the light?” Another parallel with Campbell is Brunton’s exploration of the nature of Reality, wherein he says, “It is all like a giant dream, with every human inserting his own private dream inside the public one” (62). Compare this to Campbell’s often-quoted: “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.”

Nowhere in the book is it said that the Short Path will be labor and effort free, which is important. The work still has to be done, and done continually—there is no sudden, lasting enlightenment—but the difference is that the work is done in the presence of the Source rather than in trying to get to it. The chapter “Warnings on the Short Path” is essential reading on the journey. I appreciated that Brunton was quick to say that this is a path with many merits, but that there are other paths as well. He does, however, caution against paths administered by a guru or other individual set up to be an expert (again reminding me of Campbell), and further cautioning that the experiences that the aspirant has along the way needn’t be legitimized by an outside figure to have meaning and value.

In the chapter “Experiences Along the Way,” there are several passages relating to matters of pain, fear, loss, and working through the times of darkness and confusion that come on the spiritual path. These passages are succinct and will be valuable to the reader as guideposts on the journey. I have experienced most of the feelings and thoughts that Brunton covers in this chapter and they can be daunting without a context such as he provides.

I hope that Larson and the PBPF continue to produce compilation guides such as these from the works of Paul Brunton. They are texts that I refer to often in my practice, and quote from at length in my writings and curriculum on storytelling and parallels between the artistic and spiritual paths.