Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ataraxia: The Steamboat Principle

I think it’s a truly extraordinary moment in SBNR writing…

… SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious. Writing the Webster rebuttal has made me realise I identify with that term and its history… it’s proving a useful opportunity to crystallise the concept’s importance, the culture associated with it that we can and should be proud of, but aren’t, I think as a result of commercialism and easy answers… and we may be neglecting important stuff… this is what allows Webster to and claim in what looks to the uneducated like a coherent fashion that we need to ‘scrap spirit altogether’… I think it is time for a reappraisal of SBNR and a reminder of what it is and has been, apart from 2012 nonsense…

… pursuing his OBE activities, Robert Monroe (Far Journeys, 1985), who invented the term “OBE”, wants to reach the nonphysical space where some beings he is in touch with reside. They tell him he couldn’t tolerate the atmosphere. He will need to undergo a set of experiences first, which will change him. He agrees… following is one of the experiences.

Monroe was a totally SBNR individual, a man with an engineering background who one day found himself floating on the ceiling. He invented a vocabulary and set of techniques for nonphysical exploration (still very much in use at the Monroe Institute he founded) that is entirely independent of all religious culture and has some degree of technicality in its vocab and feel. As a result, some thought he was a little ropey on human emotions. The truth is he had great understanding of them and repeatedly wrote far more interestingly about them than many supposedly more right-brained people.

Judge for yourself:

. . . Our little dog with the funny name, Steamboat, he is walking with
me along the road in early morning . . . he is such a friend . . . his
bright gladness at seeing me . . . he actually grins when he wants you to
know what a nice guy he is, just because that’s what his human close-by
god does . . . his seeming need to be with you, enthusiastically do what
you want to do . . . just a word from me, and he comes running to me
joyfully . . . it’s much more than the fact that I feed him, most of what
we do has no relationship to such . . . we have a bond that might be
called friendship, he’s succeeded in making friends with his god, doing
things together, that’s pretty good stuff, making friends with your
god . . . now he’s been diverted into the wooded bank alongside the
road, eagerly seeking an ever-elusive rabbit, but after a short search, he
will return, bounding across the road to walk just in front of me again .
. . then I hear a vehicle, a car or truck, approaching behind the blind
curve and I call to Steamboat to come to me, stand and be where it is
safe . . . it is a truck, and it comes around the curve quickly, too quickly
. . . just ten feet away from passing me, Steamboat leaps down the bank
from the woods and directly under the wheel of the truck . . . there is a
rending scream as the wheel grinds over the lower half of his body,
flattening it completely . . . the truck moves away and stops, and the
driver gets down from his cab, sadly apologetic . . . I get to where
Steamboat is still trying to come to me, his front legs trying to drag the
crushed half across the road to where I am . . . I sit down on the road
in front of him, and he stops trying to move as I reach out and rub his
head, tears forming in my eyes as minuscule evidence of the deep
sorrow within me . . . through my hand, I feel the heavy tremors
moving through his body from the pain, and he licks my hand and looks up
at me, asking, hoping his god will take care of the pain . . . I look at his
body, the damage so irreparable there is no hope . . . he licks my hand again . . . and I accept the responsibility . . . I get up and move to the waiting truck driver, removing
my pullover shirt as I go . . . a look passes between us and he knows
that I do not blame him, that he should harbor no guilt . . . sadness
shared, yes . . . but no guilt . . . I was responsible, not he . . . I move
to the truck, remove the cap from the gas tank, and push the shirt into the
tank, soaking it with fluid . . . then I remove the dripping cloth and
move back to Steamboat, who has watched me expectantly, too weak to
do more . . . I sit down, and his head drops into my lap, eyes looking up
to me, asking, asking . . . gently, I move the cloth over his nose with one
hand and place the other on his head . . . his eyes look at me deeply and
the tremors in his neck subside slowly and are gone . . . I see and know
the closeness we share is eternal, and he somehow knows this, too . . .
the conscious awareness in his eyes dims and is gone . . . and they are only eyes with my tears in them . . .

Suddenly he exits this reality –

– which has been set up by these beings as an environment in which to learn a specific lesson. All of this has been taking place out of body.

Instantly he knows Steamboat is fine — “somewhere near my physical body”.

Yes, Steamboat is fine. The designers of the experience explain that this was a reliving of an earlier similar event in which a different dog died, and that in the earlier event, Monroe himself was helpless:

You did nothing to fulfill your responsibility. In your present state of awareness, you exercised the control that is so important […] The paradox attached to such vital energy, emotion as you call it, is the opportunity for growth it provides and the simultaneous possibility of stasis and retrogression. Control and direction thereof thus becomes a prime purpose in the evolving human experience. Understanding and comprehension is the resultant and flows without effort…

I relate this to what I’ve been thinking in the last couple of weeks — ataraxia involves the ability to be peaceful amid any flow. Neither to stop the flow, nor to lose the peace amidst the flow, that is the conundrum. ‘Control’ is ‘so important’, a ‘prime purpose’. “Control of” means “maintenance of awareness (implied: parasympathetic) amidst the change of”.

Monroe’s aesthetic is that of an engineer (“understanding and comprehension is the resultant…”) but know the meaning of emotion? I think he did. Very well. ‘Negative emotion’ means something to us humans. Dumbed down into ‘the chance to grow’, Monroe’s thought pegs suffering as a precisely targeted attempt to get us to reach and hold the underlying truth beneath surface entrainments.

After he got through all those environments, he did get to visit the place he wanted to visit. I remember Epicurus: “We believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains.”

Ataraxia — movement reveals stillness, stillness harmonises movement

In multiple traditions, the soul that is peaceful is said to be “balanced” by means of a system of elements. The Western training of Franz Bardon uses a 4-element system for this which corresponds to the five-element Chinese system. But bizarrely these two modern approaches are opposites, and even more so, the Chinese one is much closer in spirit to Ancient Greece than the Western one. I’m still not quite sure why that should be.

Katchmer’s great book, The Tao of Bioenergetics (1993), offers what I see as the basic view. Glenn applauded it as having “a good explanation of the workings of the Eastern methodologies and perspectives, with enough concrete Western examples to keep one scratching one’s head for quite awhile”. It’s built on the contrast between the Western and Chinese approaches to knowing in general. The Western approach is substantial and reified and seeks ‘the right answer’; the Chinese is an energy paradigm valuing flow.

It’s almost not wrong to say that for something to be ‘an answer’ in China, it must be flowing, whereas for something to be ‘an answer’ in the West, it must have stopped flowing (at least until Heidegger and Deleuze). However, when it comes to elements-systems, it would appear that the ancient West — Greece — bucks this trend.

Generative Cycle of 5 Chinese Elements

The Chinese five-element system works in cycles. The “Generative Cycle” arranges the elements in a circle with each element producing the next in turn — Water is said to produce or generate Wood, and so forth. In the job of balancing the elements, indirect action thus becomes possible — to strengthen the Metal element one may strengthen Earth, since excess Earth will become Metal. Metal corresponds, for example, to the lungs, and Earth to the Spleen/Pancreas/Stomach complex, so weak lungs can be strengthened by strengthening the stomach.

Destructive Cycle

In the “Destructive Cycle”, on the other hand, Metal has the effect of reducing or inhibiting the Wood element, of which the organ is the liver. Thus an overactive liver can be reined in by strengthening the lung. Each organ is associated with a complex of emotions, thus these interventions alter one’s psychology.

It’s all about effecting dynamic changes in an ongoing stream. As qi flows through the whole it clings or is overactive or else is weak, in this or that area, and the flow is warped out of true. Systems for getting it back in line using the elemental approach range from the purely meditative — like Chia’s Fusion of the Five Elements, work with the meridians, or stuff by Bi Yongsheng I’ll refer to later in the post — to the book I got those illustrations from, Chang’s The Tao of Balanced Diet (1987) which makes use of flavour, energy level and pH balances in different foods. Healing by eating, a nice thought which has worked for me. (Chia promised a similar system once but I don’t believe he has ever published it.)

When flow is clear, when all elements support each other and none is predominant, when the system is free of blockage, it has then become transparent and favours no direction, so can recover events and expressions. It has a dynamic homeostasis allowing a life of undisturbedness or ataraxia amidst any sort of motion.

What’s very interesting is that (from what we have left to us), the Western four element system seems to have begun with a similar attitude to flow. The elements, says Empedocles, “prevail in turn as the time comes around”. Heraclitus, so often the most Chinese of the Greeks, mentions that “the death of fire is birth for air and the death of air is birth for water” and so on. Anaximenes and Anaxagoras have certain relevant passages and Plato’s Timaeus includes much on the process of cyclical transformation of the elements (49-50), and how they make up the character of souls.

But the European approach has not kept up this interest in flow and Bardon’s 20th c. Western Hermetic technique shows the result. It’s so different that I actually have discovered I’m not able to combine the two comfortably, but it perfectly illustrates the ‘reified/static’ mien of Western European thought as sketched by Katchmer.

Bardon’s system is in the line of Agrippa and Fludd, Western occultism. The technique involves breathwork with four different elements as two pairs of opposite qualities — Fire and Water are hot and cold; Air and Earth, light and heavy, respectively. The practitioner first learns to handle each element separately by breathing it into the body. When seasoned s/he can then inbreathe all four elements simultaneously, focusing them in different areas: Earth in the legs and genitals, Water in the belly, Air in the chest, and Fire in the head. By concentrating the energies strongly, each simultaneously in its area, the practitioner brings the system into balance and harmony. Fludd shows exactly this elemental order. The Indians tend to put Air on top I think… more research coming.

This harmony is entirely static. There is no sense of interaction with the environment, only with a world of ideal qualities, and the four “flowing”, “becoming” elements of old Western lore are not to be found. Where the Chinese system involves carefully balancing motion in order to reveal harmony, the Western system makes a block of harmonised motionlessness to which the ordinary life energies must conform. I find it a telling difference and one that confirms Katchmer, although the latter doesn’t know Bardon.

Glenn Morris fans will note that the ability to run energy hot or cold at will is very much a part of his system. However, working with Bardon’s Fire and Water elements does not help for this as Bardon never runs energy at all — the West is quite destitute of a meridian system through which energy can be dynamic. The only qigong book I have ever seen with good instructions for running hot or cold at will is the one I quoted at the end of last post, which is rapidly becoming my favourite book on medical qigong of all time: Bi Yongsheng’s Chinese Qigong Outgoing-Qi Therapy (1997). (Glenn himself teases but doesn’t give a method for this.)

You can also find in that book a system for generating a form of qi corresponding to each of the five elements, which can be used for elemental balance exercises on the generating-destroying cycle I gave earlier earlier. (Mind you, I haven’t yet tackled the huge work of Jerry Alan Johnson who I believe studied with Bi. But Bi’s book is seriously good anyway.)

It’s interesting to think that the Chinese system reflects much more closely the fluid/becoming nature of the Greek elements, as given by many philosophers, than the later European occult systems seem to. As I say, I’m not sure what happened there, nor when the switchover to the static occurred in the West.


Sorry for tardiness and linklessness, plus fair warning that as I write the Webster rebuttal which is taking on large proportions, Saturday posts may become shorter/sketchier or occasionally absent. I do have a lot of posts in cold storage I can bombard you with but they may run out. Thx for bearing with me, think it’ll be worth it…

Naturalizing the Breath

The beginning of transcendent wisdom at soul/energy level, in quite a few traditions, is a kind of balance, contained and managed, which allows the motion of life without getting swept up in it. (The East-West difference in conceptualisation of that balance is fascinating, and I’ll get to that next week.) It’s in this context that Epicureanism, or indeed any of the other philosophies in which desire is managed down, are so useful. Not desiring more than one has means being satisfied, content, and peaceful. This is pleasure. That calculus of desire, where what arises is easily satisfied, allows life not to disturb — ataraxia.

It is easy and profitable, like I said before, to retrofit or graft the Chinese sexual techniques, the fangzhong shu, to the Epicurean ethic. Compatibility is the key, as much as or more than similarity. You’ll never find sexual techniques in Epicureanism since Epicurus, along with every one of his successors, was too pessimistic about sex to concoct any. So they never discovered what the Chinese did, which is that sex (with discipline and care) can be all about balance, pleasure, health and ataraxia — exactly the Epicurean aims.

It’s the same with a whole bunch of stuff — the Smile techniques of last week for example. There is nothing similar in Epicureanism but it’s bang on with their goals. Similarly, a big part of what you learn in qigong or kundalini practices is about breathing exercises. These are absolutely essential to what I do, and they are entirely absent from Western ancient records, even though their philosophy is totally compatible with so much Western stuff. The pneuma doctrines the Stoics settled into, especially, are really identical to the doctrines of qi/prana. Aer was important from the beginning with Anaximenes. The doctors of India, China and Greece worked with the energy to heal. But Greece did not develop breathing.

So historically, very few people in the West know what breathing makes possible. You need to experience it. We don’t have any cultural way of describing the change of mind involved in changing breath — nor resulting changes in the matter and energy of the body. Pierre Hadot was very big on ancient philosophy as spiritual exercises which aimed at a way — his contribution is very valuable — but what he meant by “spiritual exercises” was the questioning of assumptions and intentions, along with some asceticism. Good stuff, but the training of breath and mind together is not understood.

(Via the cross-fertilisation of Stoicism with Vipassana now in progress, that may change — although Vipassana is not qigong nor yogic breathing and should not be mistaken for it.)

One person who does get some of this is Thomas McEvilley, whose massive, fascinating The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002) is a beautiful comparative study of Ancient Indian and Greek philosophy. Epicurus and the Pāli Buddha never had a more fruitful and civilised conversation — nor did Pyrrho and Nagarjuna, nor Democritus and Jain atomism, for that matter. Fun at last to see these guys hobnobbing! Academic specialisation tends to maintain a big Berlin Wall between them.

The trap, though, is signalled in the title. It’s a book about thought. It doesn’t touch practice, except at odd moments. And it’s enthusiastic, and the impressionable may see things that aren’t there, like one Amazon reviewer, who said that “Plato’s Academy was a Yoga ashram, in effect”. Perhaps one could get that entirely mistaken impression from statements in the book like: “Every mystical element in Indian thought can be found in Greek thought too.” It’s that word again — “thought”. Thought is not practice. There’s a footnote: “This overlap, however, does not include the practice of yoga, which seems a distinctively Indian accomplishment…” That reviewer didn’t look in the footnotes. Gah! I’ve been there.

Plato was no yogi. Whatever his ‘unwritten doctrines’, which featured plenty of mathematics as I understand, the basics of the academy seem to have been dialectic and geometry, with the new academy meandering to scepticism very soon after his death. There were no real exercises of breath and qi in Platonism, none in Epicureanism, and none in Stoicism, although McEvilley claims not to be sure:

Whether Stoics, like Hindus, attempted to establish the right inner vibration through direct control of the breath is not known; more probably they worked directly on the hẽgemonikon [intent] rather than on the bodily breath … most importantly, the Stoics seem no more than other Greek schools to have taught meditation and bodily discipline in anything like the Indian yogic manner.

And yet — the similarity he mentions between the thought processes of these conversations allows us to retrofit. We don’t need to be naively universalist because there is actual similarity of thought and theory, just as much with China as with India. Along with the theory of breath and qi/pneuma, there are all sorts of compatibilities of thought which allow graftings of practice. (I’m far from the first to notice that Heraclitus is often a Taoist.)

I don’t know why the West never developed breath regimen. It just didn’t. I see more or less nothing major on breath until the 20th century, when Bardon’s system appeared, which does heavily feature breath, but I have no idea where it came from. The system is very different from Eastern methods (more next week), alienatingly so for me, enough that there may be some sort of occult oral transmission I know nothing about. Agrippa hardly mentions breath, although when he does it’s Bardonish I suppose.

Stephen Chang includes information on various forms of Crane Breathing, Reverse Breathing, and Bone Breathing

On the less heathen angle, there’s a page of breathing in Loyola’s Exercises (which would be 16th c.), more or less equivalent to an impassioned Christian version of Herbert Benson (20th) which in a more Humanist mould is where Glenn began too. But of the breathings available on my reading lists — the belly breaths, the reverse breaths and so forth — there is no hint in any Western document of any period, that I have seen yet. I’d love to be shown some.

I’m told the following inscription may well date from 500 BCE, right in the floreat of Heraclitus (or Pythagoras or Xenophanes). Just then, the path we know as Taoism was coming to exist. The Neiye, that masterpiece of early China which advocates the joy and health of quiet practice in a way that would gladden any Epicurean, was still a century off. Laozi and Zhuangzi weren’t born nor thought of. But already there was breath in this inscription whose history remains obscure:

When transforming the breath, the inhalation must be full to gather the magic. To gather the magic, fullness must be extended. When it is extended it can penetrate downward. When it can penetrate downward, it is magic. When it descends it becomes calm, solidifies, and is both strong and firm. When it is strong and firm, it will germinate. If it germinates it will grow and retreat upward. If it is attracted back, then a man can reach both heaven and earth in the same breath. When it retreats upward, it reaches the top of the head. When it falls forward, it can caress the feet and still press down. The secret powers of Providence move above. The secret powers of the Earth move below. He who follows this will live; he who acts against this will die.

Chinese Breath Inscription, ?500 BCE

That’s Glenn’s preferred translation of it (Martial Arts Madness, 1999). I reproduce the original at right. I have four other translations, found in the 2 Glenn-approved vols. of Jane Huang’s Primordial Breath (2 vols., 1987 and 1990), which translate some intriguing texts on this stuff from the Taoist Canon. The theory there was, we don’t know what a lot of these symbols mean for sure these days so safety lies in numbers. The calm, the solidity and firmness, all relate to the balance and ataraxia with which I began this post. Anyone who thinks ‘magic’ is a poor word doesn’t know breathwork (and didn’t know Glenn!)

It’s by such cultural productions that you know China is going to develop breathwork, but Greece produced nothing of the kind. Maybe Peter Kingsley would tell me there’s the odd word in Empedocles. But it’s thin. What there is, though, is compatibility. Personally, I feel like this stuff fulfills a promise that simply never fruited in the Western past.

Anyone interested in breath will find useful stuff in Glenn’s books — see Reading List. From the Qigong Reading List, I indicate particularly Bi Yongsheng, with Stephen Chang and Takahashi/Brown also relevant.

Since not everyone has caught up with the excellence of the Bi Yongsheng book yet, I’ll end by transcribing a passage I’ve found very helpful. Of course, as recent events on this blog show, I certainly am not always quite as peaceful as I’d like to be! :) But then, I have major experiences going on at the moment which maybe one day I’ll write about. Meanwhile, the following on what you might call the ataraxia of breathing has helped me a great deal:

The ancients laid much stress on the manner of breathing in their practice of regulation of respiration, stating four phases (xiang) of respiration: wind phase (feng xiang), gasp phase (chuan xiang), air phase (qi xiang) and rest phase (xi xiang). With the wind phase, one can hear the rough sound of his own breath; with the gasp phase, though he may hear no sound of his breath, he may feel stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air; with air phase, he may neither hear the rough sound of breath nor feel the stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air yet his breath is not even; and with the rest phase, which is a state of extreme quietness, he may achieve deep, long and even respiration. It was believed in ancient times that “concentrating on the wind phase may derange the mentality, on the gasp phase may cause knotted mentality, on the air phase may strain the mentality, and only on the rest phase can the mentality be set peaceful”.

– Bi Yongsheng, Chinese Qigong Outgoing-Qi Therapy (1997), p. 167


My reading fast is over! And I bought myself this to celebrate, which is where I got that painting from for last post BTW.

This is such a good book! It’s like instant favourite book ever. Basically short hagiographies (that means spiritual biographies in English) of weird Taoist folks over a thousand years of Chinese history. You can learn so much about a tradition from the way it talks about itself!

These guys are crazy! But not exactly Avadhoot crazy… it’s just… very Chinese… :) And in that wonderful terse style.

Thought I’d share one with you:


Lu Tong was the madman of Chu called the Carriage Grabber.

When Confucius was going to Chu, the Carriage Grabber passed Confucius saying, “Oh phoenix, oh phoenix, hwo virtue has declined! Those who are gone cannot be admonished, those yet to come can still be pursued. Stop, stop! Those who participate in government now are in peril.”

Confucius alighted, wanting to talk with him, but he ran away, so Confucius didn’t get to talk with him.

Now isn’t he a Cynic in some ways? (Ancient version I mean.) I hear the Cynics had connections with the Pythagoreans too. Of course Cynics in the literature would be less oracular in their pronouncements. :)

But what really lets you know this is China is a part I missed out, it should read:

Lu Tong was the madman of Chu called the Carriage Grabber. He liked nurturing life and would gather and eat radishes, fruits, and turnips. He traveled around to famous mountains, and people saw him for several hundred years.

When Confucius was going to Chu…

Nourishing life (yangsheng)? Visiting mountains? Living for hundreds of years? That can only be a Taoist! A very different way from anything Abrahamic — and so much variety in these characters.


EDIT: Links now fixed sorry about that!

Saw recently some recrudescence of argument that there is ‘actually no such thing as tantric sex’. Will not argue it now but — oh yes there is. Those wanting to check my statement, read up on karmamudrā , the Naths, Maithuna, and particularly the Sahajiyas.

However tantric sex is not repeat not Epicurean in character.

Wanted to mention more importantly — Russell Kirkland in the Encyclopedia of Taoism has remarks on jing in the all-important Neiye — see Roth’s wonderful translation in Original Tao DIFFERENT TRANSLATION FREE HERE.

Jing means in general ‘vital essence’ but is often male semen in later texts (or female menstrual blood). Kirkland thinks it can’t be this in the Neiye because it is said to be the foundation of everything — grains below and stars above, “flowing in the interstices of the earth”. Semen isn’t found flowing in the interstices of the earth. L)

Actually he is wrong. Everything has a vital essence, and the vital essence in a human male is semen — or is strongly bound up with semen and what produces semen — which is why practices conserving semen (or menstrual blood) are so beneficial. But it is the same vital essence in either case.

Neiye says, when jing “is stored up inside [a person’s] chest”, s/he is a sage”. Kirkland would say since semen can’t be stored in the chest, jing here is not semen. But those who practice the more advanced Mantak Chia stuff in the sex part of the Qigong Reading List will know that you can move semen about the body. And does anyone remember Ramalinga Swamigal? Here he is talking about his own transformation process:

All the bones having become soft, all the tendons having lost their grip on the body system / The entire blood having congealed inside, the semen and sexual fluids having ascended to the chest and condensed into a supra-energy form / The cerebral hemispheres having expanded same as a flower blossoms…

– see here.

The chances of Ramalinga having read the Neiye are nil.

Meanwhile a scholiast to Diogenes Laertius tells us that Epicurus believed, “semen comes from the entire body”.


Right, so after yesterday I actually took this further on Webster’s blog. And to cut a long story short, I decided to reverse my position, read his book when it comes out, and thoroughly critique it.


I admit my goat was got to start with. Possibly the guy’s superciliousness on the subject of the acceptance of death, a topic dear to my heart, is what did it. And certainly I thought his ‘punch you hard’ rhetoric was offensive and uncalled-for. But you know what? I take back what I said yesterday about him being an unworthy opponent. Even if he was rude, I for once was also — and he didn’t rise to it. On that thread I see signs of something I have literally never experienced on the web before: an atheist who is able to listen and respond.

Some of you know I did my time in the web skeptic-proponent trenches. I came away, with no offence intended, realising that most skeptics are simply cartoons. They have no point to make at all. But this guy is different. Don’t get me wrong — underneath it all is doubtless some degree of cartoon skepticism and an ostrich approach to unwelcome data. I’m expecting that. But the thing is, he didn’t have to approve my comments, and he did. Not only that, he showed suspicious signs of actually reading them carefully, all the way to the end. He also pointed out that Dawkins atheists have been upset with him. These are signs of someone with a position different from the normal one.

Even that post I was commenting on — it’s not the work of a cartoon skeptic merely accusing afterlife believers of not understanding the facts of life. However egregious his attempt to settle NDE arguments by appeal to a single Scientific American article (*sigh*), the point he chose to end on shows that his real tack is about a kitsch refusal to deal with the existential implications of mortality. That is hardly your common skeptic fare.

And finally, once or twice, he made me think, gladly. That is, he actually had a point I cared about that was not a cheap shot. I realise now that was all I ever really wanted from the debates.

So yes, he may be a worthy opponent. That’s why, when his book comes out in a fortnight, I’m going to read it and critique it thoroughly. It won’t take long and I anticipate no necessity for research. But for the first time in a long time, I actually give a damn what an atheist has to say. This is a guy who knows a bit about religion and spirituality, and who knows how to think. He also claims to be trying to make others think and is not wholly unfamiliar with his subject. I want to see if I can make him think. Only a little! I don’t expect miracles.

So book your seats now for the debate of the new millennium ladies and gents! The Porphyry v. Anebo of our time! (Yeah right…) ;)

EDIT: Professor Webster hit “like” for this post less than 5 mins after posting. See? He is classy. ^_^

FURTHER EDIT: Weird — I thought the book wasn’t out yet but today Amazon says it’s available. Still it may be a week or two until I get around to it.


I’ve just got to respond to this spew of ignorance. I’ve had enough. I really have.

When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual,” I want to punch them in the face…

That is what we’re reduced to arguing with. You know what, I’m being asked to take sides, so I will — the last time I saw this crap on the internet it was an ignorant Christian bigot spouting it. I’ve decided I prefer him. Anything but one more tinpot atheist Hitler. Anything. Because the ignorant Christian bigot had one thing left separating him from the level of hell normally reserved for Murdoch journalists — he had manners.

The charge? That I am stupid, because I’ll believe anything. That I am selfish, because I value the ‘inner turn’ and am therefore not fulfilling my duty to actively change the world. And that I am just scared of death.

Now I could argue against this. I had a whole thing laid out — about how evidential I am, how careful, how much I value intellectual integrity, about how there is no evidence for anything the guy is saying, about how long the history of being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is (millennia), about the good it has given the world, about how it can never disappear because it happens to human beings all the time, about the importance of mysticism, about the sheer insolence of trying to cut off rational debate under the guise of advocating it, about bothering to do your research if you’re so damn rational, and above all, about how much I resent be lectured to by just another dickwaving Dawkins on the make.

But you know what? I can’t be bothered. I’ve absolutely had enough. I’m not going to engage with this any more. I would rather be sent to jail or burned at the stake for my beliefs than defend them against such an unworthy opponent.

In praise of Cross-Cultural Pleasure, Health and Immortality

Lü Dongbin painted by Sesson Shukei, one of my favourite images of immortality. The dragon upon which Lü stands (what a great depiction!) symbolises his immortality. He has an elixir in his left hand, which he has just uncorked — the cork is in his right hand. This has called or formed another dragon in the air above him.

This is set off by the usefulness of Epicureanism again…“Pleasure, health, and immortality” sounds too good to be true, but read on.

Glenn reversed serious lifelong arthritis mostly by qigong. It’s not hard to imagine the pleasure that goes with the health there. (Certainly not for me, I have had and am having the same, and more.) At 38 he dropped his baby daughter because of arthritis pain, but at 48 had no pain at all. Pleasure was a big part of the healing, in the form of the Smile technique COMPLETE TEXT FREE . Mantak Chia’s Smile is just as useful COMPLETE TEXT FREE (PAGE 43). You can combine them. I have old CDs of Glenn chuckling at how odd it must seem to some, reaching into their own organs with happiness, but have those beginners read Plato? (Of course not!) : –

When the mind wants to cause fear, it makes use of the liver’s native bitterness and plays a stern and threatening role… By contrast, gentle thoughts from the mind produce images of the opposite kind… and so bring relief from bitterness… making the part of the soul that lives in the region of the liver cheerful and gentle…


“The part of the soul that lives in the liver” — this really is pretty Taoist considering it’s Plato. But the spirit of the Western organ is still separate from its physicality to a greater extent than in China. (Taoist priests actually conjure deities out of their bodies to officiate at the rites, which would cause most Platonists to do a double-take or three.)

That brings us to immortality, which does not mean literal physical bodies that last forever. Even the most mundane kind of immortality is interesting. Epicurus stated that the removal of fear and anxiety allowed one to live ‘like a god among men’. He felt self-sufficiency and serenity were godlike and he found them in the gods when he looked at them:

…there are perceptions in our mind — so, at least, Epicurus affirms — of beings brighter and better than man. These images visit us when the mind is no longer besieged by the objects of sense. In the night season, and in quiet reflection, we have visions of the gods, as beings beyond the reach of trouble or of death — beings endowed with immortality and supreme felicity…

– Wallace, Epicureanism COMPLETE TEXT FREE

It’s no secret that immortality has been offered as everything from a kitsch fairytale to a serious result of spiritual practice. Either way, it certainly seems very enjoyable if you manage to attain it. We met before the Chinese god Wenchang, with his autobiography — when he first (re-) attains his own immortality he goes on a holiday which, says Kleeman, is ‘totally Daoist… delighting in nature without a care in the world’:

I happened to find myself atop Mount Monarch in Grotto-courtyard Lake. I loved the magnificent scenery, and so stayed there a while… Transcending the profane inferior world, I came and went alone. The lights on the water and the colors on the mountains were delightful all year round. Humming with the wind and whistling at the moon, what limit was there to this joy?

He has to tone it down eventually, since euphoria is not peace. But here we have a pretty clear confluence of immortality with sheer pleasure.

Empedocles of Acragas

Wenchang actually began as a god before becoming entangled in earthly life, just like our Western Empedocles, for example, whom Peter Kingsley made a little famous. He is another god writing an autobiography — and offering deifying methods too, that is, methods of recovering your own innate divinity. Not that he was recognised as a god in his time, but then neither was Wenchang whilst incarnated. Empedocles is walking around as a “god amongst men”, he does say, and he means it literally. What awaits him after his mortality is renounced but joy at the immortal table, free of human woe? Just so, those achieving immortality or deliverance from the corpse in China lived in celestial paradises with Laojun, Huangdi the Yellow Emperor, or Xiwang mu, Queen Mother of the West.

All the stuff about “going to heaven if you’re good” is a dumbing down of this in many ways, and I include Plato in that. The systems I’ve studied tend to say you won’t actually last in the otherworld without juice and eutonia — the Taoists say, without having become a true ‘yang spirit’, which apparently can take physical form at any time but is not limited to any form.

In the tantric Mahasiddha tradition as expounded by Dowman FREE TEXT, “the result of sadhana is pure pleasure”, with enlightenment its ultimate, and ultimately pleasurable goal. Although such paths require endurance, as Epicurus says, “we believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains.” The right methods bring health to the body meanwhile — Empedocles promises “remedies for ills and help against old age” and Chinese longevity is legendary.

Epicurus’ attitude to death is interesting for Kundalini purposes. When he says that a major pleasure strategy is to: “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us,” (on the principle of decreasing trouble of mind) he is really talking common sense, but is far from meaning, let’s pretend it isn’t going to happen. Seneca, a member of that supposedly rival sect, the Stoics, records his attitude:

In the meantime Epicurus will oblige me, with the following saying: ‘Rehearse death’, or — the idea may come across to us rather more satisfactorily if put in this form — ‘It is a very good thing to familiarise oneself with death.’


That wouldn’t be out of place in Tibet. Epicurus is a very good ‘naturaliser’ of qigong in the West in the absence of anything I can use from a new age standpoint. In Epicurus, a life of peace is usually to be recommended over one involved in political power-seeking — “Quiet life and withdrawal from the many” is the formula. In this connection I remember the story of Zhuangzi:

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river

The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister

Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”

“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”

“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”


The attitude verges on what the West would once have called Cynicism, yet another rival Hellenistic philosophy — but more of that later. It’s a mindset that produced many great sages. As Harold Roth puts it in a brilliant essay on the Stanford Philosophy site FREE TEXT, this side of Zhuangzi did become useful for those who “saw within it support for a withdrawal from a life of social and political service into a private life of reclusion and self-cultivation”, no small decision in Chinese literati circles.

For Epicureans that meant retiring, specifically to a garden, usually. The original Garden of Epicurus was outside Athens, a place of quiet pleasure, teaching and contemplation. Many others sprang up later, sometimes turning into Pythagorean-style communities, and gardens remain important to Epicureans now, increasingly so as self-sufficiency becomes crucial to all of us.

This may be a bit of garden in the same place where William Temple was, I can’t quite gather. But it wouldn’t have looked like this anyway, he was big on fruit trees. And there would have been lots more of it.

Sir William Temple wrote an essay on Epicurean gardening in the 17th century COMPLETE TEXT FREE. His garden was rather bigger than most of us will ever access but he was suitably Epicurean in completely ignoring William of Orange’s invasion; he accepted the new regime, refused office, and went back to pruning his fruit trees. (Not all Epicureans are so retiring — Thomas Jefferson was hardly one to lie quietly out of office.) Some Mahasiddhas lived in even greater luxury than Sir William, for example Lilapa who apparently was a King and a hedonistic one at that. There are no rules. ^_^ A lady named Stephanie Mills wrote a book about modern stripped-down living called Epicurean Simplicity — maybe I’ll pick it up sometime.

Just as Epicureans love their gardens, so do qigong players — or parks. Qi flows in exchange with the human energy, and there is always the chance of meeting an interesting tree. A place to be, with a perfume in the air, to notice the deeper changes of the seasons, to protest against the ambitions of the cultural imperialising of the day. Pleasure, health and perhaps just a sniff of immortality…

There’s meat to all this, so more upcoming.


Very proud of my lady Rachel Ong, here performing a fusion of bellydance with Chinese martial arts moves, enjoy:

The piece is entitled “Dragon and Sword”, music is by Jeremiah M. Soto.

Rachel’s website here.


EDIT: Many thanks to reader Andrew (see comments, below) for pointing out that Chrism, a teacher in this movie, is actually a sexually exploitative sack of shit guru! Ain’t life grand! If interested in gory details, see this site. The Amazon review is adjusted and docked a star for not spotting this when interviewing the guy.

Ah, beloved Kundalini, the crap committed in thy name! William Irwin Thompson says he has seen Kundalini cause ‘a strange kind of endarkenment’ — it’s about impeccability, but as Andrew points out, and as you see in the review, this is the guy in the movie supposedly hottest on ethics. Sheesh.


Kundalini (movie)

It’s a shame this. I’m going to post the review below on Amazon shortly. I’m trying to be generous and will give three stars, but for readers of this blog, stay away because it’s crap. I hope I’ve made that clear to the savants. This is my last encounter with this kind of pop spirituality.


Click to see the trailer if you can be bothered

I wanted to love it, as a Kundalini experiencer and investigator of the lore, but this movie is not that good. It does manage to present something of what Kundalini is, a little of its history, and a vague case for its cross-cultural nature… the basic concept is there — uninitiated viewers will make enough connection between different descriptions to get a vague idea of what the energy is doing, and may find it interesting — but it’s dilatory and new age for anyone wanting real substance.

Two experiencers of spontaneous kundalini and its life challenges open the movie with brief interviews: Scott Perkins is in deep difficulty with his awakening whilst Barbara Harris has been through that upheaval and left it behind. They illustrate how accidental awakening can occur in interestingly different ways — spinal injury in his case, Near Death Experience in hers — and also a particular challenge it throws up, the souring of familiar relationships because of newfound spirituality not being shared. But the commentary never really picks up on what they are saying, creating the impression of a film not listening to itself and failing to empathise with its subjects, who are actually absent through most of what follows.

Instead we go to some expert Kundalini veteran talking heads: Lawrence Edwards, Paul Pond, Chrism and Lee Lawrence, who give views on… well a lot. It gets very wide ranging and what they often give isn’t really info on “Kundalini in general”, sometimes only tangentially addressing it at all.

Pond and Edwards are the quieter ones, and I like for example the latter’s thoughts about an increasing pattern of spontaneous Kundalini in upcoming years, interesting if true although rather difficult to track. Chrism, who does run a site of very nice free Kundalini teaching pages BTW, has the aura of a preacher which may put you off, but his stress on high ethical values is a relief — that’s something the new age hasn’t always been very strong on. Lawrence is something of a wild card.

The latter 70% of the film takes on almost the hue of a Louis Theroux “Weird Weekend” — strange views and eccentric characters flying about. It randomly accesses the line “sensible”{————–}”whoah!” along which you might get anything from encouraging more funding for Kundalini research by focusing on health benefits (Edwards, “sensible”), to predictions that in 25 years the world will follow laws out of love rather than fear (Lawrence, “whoah!”).

There’s a strong attempt to position Kundalini for the New Age seminar circuit (one section is labelled “2012 and beyond”, blehhhhh) but the actual connection of the nervous system to the transpersonal, the phenomenology, the history of Kundalini are all pretty largely ignored. The questions must have ranged all over the shop and the answers contradict one another. Chrism, for example, denies Lee Lawrence’s future by pointing out (correctly) that the human world will always be at various “developmental stages”… but in the next breath is happy to state that Kundalini energy can cure AIDS, which is total facepalm time — you just don’t say that with no evidential backup, the subject is too serious. And lots more weird juxtapositions like that.

Unfortunately the film’s production tends to let it down. It needed more love and craft, although at certain points I’d have settled for good spelling (“My partner and I am spliting”, says a caption for Scott) or grammar (“We may experience much phenomena unfamiliar to us”… =sheesh!= ^_^) . The graphics purporting to show Kundalini are lacklustre, the music to my ear insipid, and there are schoolkid errors in the voiceover like not being able to pronounce ‘Caduceus’ or know the difference between it and the Rod of Asclepius… couldn’t someone have =checked=? This is the cable channel style often used to present “new age” treatments and is not suitable for subject matter of this scope.

Gopi Krishna — worth the read.

One thing you do notice, and that is, when Gopi Krishna comes onscreen the discourse elevates. His is old footage from a time when seriousness was allowed, and the hell if you couldn’t sell it, as we expected sages not marketers. We owe a massive debt to Krishna as cross-cultural Kundalini really begins with him. With no guru other than patience he had an independent experience, interpreting it in an independent way, and making that independence and consequent exploration a key feature of Kundalini life, even at the cost of pain and difficulty. Plus of course, encouraging scientific study as the film makes clear.

Many great teachers since (including the guy who got me into this, Glenn Morris) have found themselves on the end of the Kundalini energetic and transpersonal changes in unexpected and relatively unguided contexts, so who knows, perhaps we are seeing a new doorway opening to this phenomenon now.

But the film isn’t really hip to much of that cultural context. The dots are never really joined and the depths of Kundalini experience are never addressed. Nothing more is given of the history prior to Krishna than the old “Teresa of Avila experienced the same as him, and BTW did you know Newton was an alchemist” stuff, which is pretty disappointing for those of us who like detail and spiritual nuance. Yogic contexts are barely explored apart from a few sentences from Lawrence Edwards himself, and there is next to nothing on the biology of Kundalini, or its symbols. Personally I think a film centring on the depth of this stuff rather than new age preaching would have been way more fascinating even for beginners.

It’s is not a disaster, this, but it’s mediocre. The subject matter has enough in it to blow any mind and open any heart but the filmmaker(s) did not investigate deeply. Kundalini theory and practice, experience and investigation, as history/fate have dropped them into our laps, represent an extraordinary cultural opportunity that deserves a big effort to place on film. Unfortunately it has not received that kind of thorough and imaginative treatment here… I could imagine worse, but still I hoped (and hope) for way better.

* * *

Unfortunately I note that the 5-star reviews on this page are all from people who have written no other Amazon reviews. One of them knows the director (although at least is honest enough to say so!) Amazon grognards will draw conclusions.


Apart from that, just some egregious stuff I noted on the cover itself — take the strapline, “Evolution is coiled within you.” Notice how evolution has completely replaced god now. Of course Krishna made that link but equally it came from Aurobindo and the “Integral” brigade first.

So much more — “it is self-evident that all men are created equal” — oh yes? This is a force that “everyone is entitled to” — oh yes? Consumerist demagoguery like this is trotted out without thought. I see a straight line between that attitude and Andrew Cohen. There’s a lot more… I can’t be bothered! :) :) :)

It’s such confused stuff, riding the back of the NDE cult etc. and I would resent any idea that it represents me as an experiencer of this phenomenon. This belongs in a category with Kundalini Yoga for Hotel Guests or Kundalini Yoga to Detox and Destress (???? How about ‘encounters with Kali to improve your skin’ or ‘Shamanic Death and Rebirth ulcer treatments’???? grrrrr).

I’m in no mood… feel very divorced from this commercial world, going strongly in another direction now. Will try not to waste your time with such shiznit in future.


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