BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader

Pilgrimage: A Very Short IntroductionPilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Reader compares and contrasts the ways and motives of pilgrims around the world, from Muslims on hajj to Elvis fans going to “Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee” [name that tune.] The author’s specialization is Japanese pilgrimages and so trips such as the circuit around Shikoku’s eighty-eight Buddhist temples are well-represented among the examples used. However, he also visits and revisits popular Hindu pilgrimages such as Kumbh Mela and Amarnath, Christian pilgrimages to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, and even secular pilgrimages to locations such as the Vietnam War Memorial.

The book consists of six chapters. Chapter one offers a fly-over of the topic in the context of it being a worldwide phenomena. Cultures from around the world engage in similar behavior when it comes to spiritual travel. Chapter two investigates forms, themes, and meaning in pilgrimage, and how they vary across different religions. This helps one define the topic and differentiate pilgrimage from similar activities – to the degree that that can be done. Chapter 3 delves into the pilgrimage as a search for the sacred, and it uses many examples from around the world to consider the varying perspectives.

Chapter 4 reflects upon the differences in modes of transport, motivations, and how the latter influences the former. Obviously, technology has radically changed the face of pilgrimage. There usually remain purists who wish to continue in the old ways (i.e. traveling mostly on foot) and others who’d just as soon use jet airplanes and air-conditioned buses. This leads to conflicts in the pilgrim community where walkers see those who travel in comfort as lacking commitment, and those who travel in comfort may see the old-schoolers as hikers who are more interested in walking than praying.

The penultimate chapter examines pilgrimage as a form of tourism. While it may be considered sacrilegious to some to equate the two activities, they certainly share in common not only the activity of travel but also such behaviors as the collection of souvenirs (e.g. relics, scrolls, and amulets.) The final chapter looks at how pilgrimage has spread into the secular domain with war memorials, nature trails, and the birth or death homes of popular personages from politics or entertainment.

The book contains many monochrome photos and a “further reading” section in the back.

I found this book to be interesting. As a secular traveler who often crosses paths with pilgrims, I was fascinated to gain insight into their head-space and to reflect upon the role that religion and spirituality played in the dawn of travel.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner

The Way of the ShamanThe Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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From tripping on ayuhuasca in Peru to sucking the evil spirits out of patients, Harner offers an overview of shamanic methods and practices. While it would seem like such an undertaking would be a thick tome given the wide variety of cultures in which Shaman are a fixture, Harner suggest that there is a remarkable similarity of methods used by these “medicine men” be they in the Americas, Central Asia, or the South Pacific. Of course, at a tight level of granularity there are differences, and Harner gives examples of such differences here and there – usually using examples of the Shamanic practices he has studied in South and Central America. However, this book is more the high altitude over pass of the landscape.

There are seven chapters. The first couple of chapters both set up the book and hook the reader with a detailed discussion of Harner’s ayuhuasca — and other mind / mood altering substance – experience. It should be pointed out that not all Shaman use psychedelics and Harner describes in detail alternative approaches to achieve altered states of conscious that involve a combination of drumming and meditative practices.

Chapter three discusses altered states of consciousness, and what Harner calls the “Shamanic State of Consciousness” (SSC) which is the altered state that is pursued by medicine men in their practice. Chapter four describes the concept of power animals and the role that they have in health and illness. (i.e. from the Shaman’s view, an illness might be seen as the result of lacking such a “spirit animal.”) The final three chapters discuss practices such as how the Shaman can acquire a power animal for the patient or how he / she might extract a malevolent influence.

I found an interesting corner being turned in this book. In the opening chapters it reads much like an anthropologist’s scholarly account. Even talking about tripping on psychedelic substances, it’s all with the grounded feel of a scientific mind. However, in the latter half of the book, it reads as though Harner truly believes that the altered state of consciousness is actually a sort of parallel dimension with an intrinsic reality unto itself. I don’t know whether this is a tactic to feather it in for skeptical readers or if it reflects Harner’s own internal journey. (It’s definitely a hard line to walk when writing a book that one hopes to be read by both scientific rational skeptics and religious true believers.) At any rate, the book gets a bit wilder as it goes along. In the beginning, the reader might think the book a discussion of how a powerful placebo effect is achieved, but by the latter chapters it seems one is considering how malevolent spirits can be trapped or extracted from a patient.

As for ancillary material, there are line-drawn illustrations, annotations, a bibliography, and two appendices. The first appendix is about drumming and gives details about what kind of drums and rattles the would-be Shaman should seek. (Drumming plays a major role in achieving the proper state of mind.) The second is a detailed description of a game played by the Flathead Indians. I should note that I read the 3rd edition of this book. The original was published in 1980.

I found the book intriguing as one interested in how people of various cultures achieve altered states of consciousness, how they experience such states, and why they pursue them in the first place. I’d recommend it for a reader who is curious about Shamanic practices – even one who, like me, is a complete neophyte to the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnanananda

Jnana Sankalini TantraJnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnananda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Tantra is in a class with quantum physics as a topic that everybody likes to talk about but no one seems to understand. But the situation is worse because everybody can have an opinion about what Tantra is and who’s to say one is correct and another is not. Therefore, there are many conceptions of Tantra floating around out there. Unfortunately, I can’t say that this book will clear up the topic, though it does offer a great deal of information in a readable package.

In the West, Tantra is mostly about having longer and more satisfying orgasms during sex. In India, that is seen a great oversimplification, but there’s an entirely different muddling of the topic. If there were pro-Tantra and anti-Tantra parties, the topic could remain clear despite differing views on the validity of the approach. Everybody might agree about what Tantra is, but veer apart as they say why they like it or loath it. However, there’s another faction, and that’s the mainstream religious personalities who want to selectively utilize bits and pieces of Tantra that they find useful, while suggesting other parts of it are all just a misunderstanding. And, again unfortunately, that is where this book stands.

As my criticism may not make sense otherwise, I’ll try to explain something I was taught about Tantra. As it was described to me, Tantra (the yogic version, Buddhist Tantra may vary entirely) was—at least, in part–a practice of engaging in endeavors that might be considered distractions on the path to overcome them. Whereas, mainstream religion says, “x is bad, never do x,” Tantra says “x can be a distraction, and so I should engage in x in a mindful way so that it no longer controls me.” This is where the focus on sex comes in. It’s not that Tantrics were perverts; they just believed they could achieve some manner of transcendence through its practice.

My primary complaint is that this book selectively takes what it likes and strains credulity by suggesting the material it dislikes is all a misunderstanding of a selective code. So there is this idea of the five principles (panchatattvas or panchamakara) and they are five practices of Tantrics consisting of consumption of: alcohol, meat, fish, roasted/fried foods, as well as sexual activity. Now, most of these are objectionable to the modern Hindu, but the author says that these were all just code for a practice of breathing with one’s tongue pressed to a certain spot on the roof of one’s mouth. Why was kechari mudra so super-secret that one had to call it sex or fish-eating? (And why would one use a code consisting of activities one finds severely objectionable?) I don’t know, the reader is just left to believe that it makes sense.

Now, should I conclude that the entire work is in code? For example, when it says that finding a good teacher and following them is important, might they really be saying that I should “Find a river otter to take to Disneyland?” No. Because only the parts that the author and his sect finds contrary are encoded, everything else is to be taken literally.

Now, the offending section is only a small part of the book, and the topic of yogic Tantra. However, the degree to which it strains credulity makes it difficult to believe anything else the books says.

The book is in two parts. The first part is an introduction to jnana sankalini tantra (JST), and the second part is the 110 verses of the JST—said to be a dialogue between Shiva and Parvathi on Tantra—with analyses by the author.

I believe that this book contains a lot of interesting ideas, but, being a neophyte to the subject but with a degree of expertise in detecting faulty logic and religious dogma, I didn’t feel I could trust the book entirely.

If you are a mainstream Hindu who wants a palatable description of Tantra that doesn’t offend your sensibilities, this is probably a great book for you. If not, I don’t think you’ll have any better idea of Tantra is than when you started.

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BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

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POEM: Truth From Unlikely Places?


I passed a man on the street,

in the brutal noonday heat.

Blending in, but for his Tee.

It read, “Nothing is as it seems.”

I said, “Ain’t that the truth, brother.”

He walked on, like all the others.

A message sent on the sly?

From some watcher in the sky?

How’d he know it’d draw my eye?

And not be taken for a lie?

Maybe my will is not so free,

and what I “know” isn’t reality.

[Later that day…]

Rev. screamed, “We’re living in a simulation!”

“Friends, this ain’t no pre-apocalyptic nation.”

“Aliens watch us on their reality-TV station.”

“All I can offer is a bargain spaceship vacation.”

I distrust those who shout from a box,

and distrust more the joining of flocks.

But the kook’s words rattled in my mind.

Maybe lunatics get things right sometime.

What if the world is just a simulated grind,

and passersby just figments of my mind?

If this world is fake, should I abstain?

Or try much harder to entertain?

BOOK REVIEW: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I had high hopes for Sam Harris’s book Free Will, but they didn’t pan out. It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. While I’m normally a huge fan of brevity and conciseness, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. My two principal complaints regard the lack of information: a. substantiating the notion that free will is always and everywhere an illusion as Harris asserts; b. suggesting what logic is at the root of decision if our conscious thoughts are irrelevant. (If they were random synaptic firings our behavior wouldn’t be nearly so consistent. Self-preservation of genes? The hand of god? You won’t know from this book.)

Harris might claim that that’s not the purpose of this book, that one should familiarize oneself with the vast literature on the topic before getting to this book. In that case, my complaints remain two-fold. First, he shouldn’t take on such a bold and presumptuous title as Free Will (no subtitle) if he’s not going to educate us from the ground up on the titular topic. Second, if the reader has done all the scholarly reading on the subject, why should we care about Harris’s opinions?

I will say that if you liked Matrix Revolutions, the third Matrix movie, you will love this book. SPOILER: In that movie, we find out that Neo is the central element of an elaborate plan to fool people into thinking they have some control over their own lives. In Harris’s book, Neo is replaced by the conscious mind.

There’s a scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion–though Harris only touches on it. This conclusion has been reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. [On a note unrelated to the book: we also know that individuals with damage to the emotional centers in the brain become unable to make decisions because all options hold the same weight.] The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of changing letters / numbers. Some subjects felt the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.) What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when their consciousness became aware of their decision.

Harris briefly mentions a couple of these neuroscience experiments, but then expects that the reader will treat the free will illusion as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Maybe there has been a broad enough scientific investigation of the topic to safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris does make this point.

Harris tells us about couple of studies in which, a.) there’s no cost differential between the different options; (i.e. is it possible that the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number for which there is no objectively better or worse option?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds—probably mostly college undergrads. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.)

There are a couple of red-flags for me about Harris’s approach to the subject. First, Harris scoffs at the suggestion that it might be that the conscious can overrule the subconscious, and seems to deem this as unworthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision instead of the conscious truly vetoing. Anytime a scholar is dismissive of another scholar’s attempts to further probe into a question signals that a pet theory has become a sacred cow.

Second, Harris suggests that anyone who truly studied his own mind in action couldn’t help but realize the fallacy of free will. People who can’t imagine that others see the world differently than them are also a point of concern when it comes to getting sound information. Could it possibly surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who’ve spent far more time alone with their minds than he, who’ve concluded quite the opposite?

Alright, I may have overstated Harris’s position when I suggested the conscious mind is relegated to a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-esque) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives. I suspect Harris would agree that evolution doesn’t over-engineer, and a conscious mind that is just part of a trick would be the vastest act of over-engineering in the history of the universe. (Unless the universe is a hologram, as some physicists are now suggesting–presumably based on the notion that their math works out in 2-D.)

I just don’t have a good idea of what purpose Harris thinks the conscious mind serves. His central point seems to be that we still need to keep putting rapists and murders in jail so they can be kept off the streets. We just shouldn’t bear any ill-will toward them because they had no control over their decisions. However, if we set a tone with our conscious thought stream, then whether the individual’s decision to act was conscious or not they would have culpability by virtue of stage-setting. If we don’t have any control over our conscious thought stream then there would be no benefit to courses of study that help one improve one’s state of mind, but there’s also a scientific literature showing that people who begin meditative practices, yoga, and the like do see tangible positive changes. (Not to mention that Harris should give all the money back for the books he has sold about meditation, i.e. Waking Up.) If we have conscious control of our thought stream, but that thought stream is irrelevant, then we should be walking around in a constantly perplexed state.

To add to the confusion, Harris uses the term “choices” to refer to his “decisions,” but according to his paper he doesn’t make any choices. He—like all of us—are slaves to some unknown–or at least unexplained–process. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

I can’t say I’d recommend this book, unless you’ve read extensively on the topic and are rounding out your reading experience. This book isn’t the ideal starting point for engaging this subject—as it seems when you are reading the blurb–because you’re as likely to come away more confused than when you began reading.

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The New Acropolis Explorations Course and My Experience Thereof

IMG_1576Last fall I attended a panel talk hosted by the New Acropolis in Bangalore. I’d never heard of the New Acropolis before, and only heard of said event because the head teacher from my yoga teacher training course was among the panelists. I found the environment at the New Acropolis to be friendly and intriguing. The talk took place amid a small library (not necessarily small for an institution of its size) and books always put me in my happy place.


There were brochures out for an upcoming 16-week Explorations Course. “Explorations” is the name for the introductory course that’s taken by non-members to dip their toes into the New Acropolis curriculum, and see if they’d like to continue as members of this school of “philosophy.” (You may be asking, “Hey–wait a minute–why’d he put quote marks around the word philosophy. I’ll get to that in due time.) At  any rate, perusing the brochure, I decided to enroll.


The course consists of 13 lectures given over a 16-week timeline. The reason there are more weeks than lectures is that there are two sessions in which one meets briefly with the instructor one-on-one, and one session that consists of exercises that one does with one’s classmates. (The latter is one of the highlights of the course.) The course is organized into three parts. The first and longest section deals with the idea of “know thyself.” That is, it presents several approaches to developing oneself as an individual. The second section expands the scope, looking at society and the role of individuals in it. The third section is about the “philosophy of history,” (there go those telltale quote marks again) or what they refer to as “evolution,” (really?) which shouldn’t be confused with Darwinian Evolution (which–as near as I can tell–has no status in their system of teachings.)


In my opinion, the transitions from one part to the next represent downshifts in the value of the course. (i.e. The course is at its most beneficial in the first section. That’s also the portion in which it’s presenting ideas that are fairly mainstream among the various philosophical / religious systems it studies.) As the course moves into the second section, one begins to see a few ideas that are either archaic or that depart from rationalism (e.g. the word “magic” gently enters the discussion.) By the time the third section rolls around, ideas that have no relationship to observable reality are being presented as if they were a given.


I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book entitled Antifragile the other day and he used the term “neomania.” Neomania–a term that Taleb coined for all I know–means an exuberance for the new for its own sake (as opposed to any objective improvement it represents.) Taking this cue, I will cobble together the term “paleomania”(an exuberance for old ideas for their own sake) to describe one of the main underlying features of the New Acropolis syllabus. One might easily believe that nothing of value has been learned in the past 2000 years and that modern thinkers (not to mention modern science) have nothing worthwhile to lend to the discussion.


This can be seen in the ideas presented from ancient Greece. Let me first say that I’m a big fan of Plato. His words “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is one of my favorite philosophical quotes. However, while I like Plato, the New Acropolis pretty much deifies him. I’m sure they wouldn’t agree with that statement. However, even Plato’s ideas on those subjects about which he was least in a position to write intelligently or authoritatively are presented as if irrefutable. A couple of his most ill-informed ideas are at the forefront of two of the lessons–notably the Platonic hierarchy of forms of government and the ideas he accepted [I don’t know that these are properly attributed to him, but he seems to have believed them] about astrology. (Note: New Acropolis’s teachings about forms of government seems to be one of the biggest causes of ill will toward the organization in Europe. Plato was an elitist on the subject. He distrusted democracy–to be fair they killed his teacher under [a form of] democracy–but believed that if you could just give a philosopher unlimited power he’d do the right thing for everybody–and not just himself. Plato wasn’t a believer of Baron Acton’s “…absolute power corrupts absolutely…” an idea that came later by those with a greater body of exposure to varying forms of government.)


The first couple of lectures I attended didn’t seem in any way untoward or unusual. The first lecture was about knowing oneself, and presented two ancient approaches to this question–i.e. Greek and Indian Vedic. The Greek three-pronged model of soma/psyche/nous, which is translated various ways–but commonly as body, soul, and reason.  The Indian approach was a seven-layered variant that also started with the physical body and moved toward more conceptual elements of being.


Now, it might have occurred to me that both of these approaches take the supernatural as a given, but as they were true representations of the systems in question, I didn’t find it bothersome. This raises a point that I think bears saying, I don’t think that the New Acropolis distorts the teachings that they include in the syllabus, but they do use selectivity to frame the subject. This framing gives the student a limited view philosophy and the various approaches to leading an examined life (as opposed to the unexamined life that Socrates told us was not worth living.)


The second lecture I attended was actually the third lecture–because I was out-of-town for a class on the Bhagavad-Gita–and it dealt with Buddhism. This session was the most orthodox and arguably the least controversial of the lectures. The four noble truths and the eight-fold path were the core of the lesson, and one doesn’t get any more fundamentally Buddhist than that.


However, the fourth lecture, which was ostensibly about Tibetan Buddhism, started me wondering where the course was going. One would expect a lecture on Tibetan Buddhism to refer heavily to the words of lamas, but most of the ideas presented in this lecture were attributed to a woman who I don’t think I’d ever heard of before. Her name was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. (If you’re saying, “Hey, that name doesn’t sound Tibetan, you are correct.”) It’s not that I don’t think that a 19th century Russian woman is capable of giving informed insight into Tibetan Buddhism. However, one becomes curious when there’s not a single Lama, Rinpoche, monk or nun in the picture. While I’m admittedly a bit of a neophyte on the subject, I’ve been to hear Tibetan monks and nuns before and have visited the local Tibetan meditation center on occasion, so I’m not completely ignorant of that system’s teachings–enough to have an idea what the most fundamental ideas would be.


So, after the Tibetan Buddhism class, my Googling fingers got to work. I just wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be asked to drink any Kool-Aid made Jim Jones style. There wasn’t a lot on the organization besides their various websites, but there were a few negative comments and would-be controversies to be found. I wasn’t too concerned by these comments for a number of reasons. First, the claims were isolated and unverifiable. To elaborate, if a person is either far to the right or far to the left, then the middle seems an extreme way off. Therefore, when a leftist organization calls an organization a “fascist cult” one has to consider the bias of the source of the claim. (Note: the same could be said from the other end of the spectrum, but I stated it that way because that’s essentially what I read in one post.) Nothing I’d seen at New Acropolis would lead me to think they were fascist, or even particularly politically conservative (if anything, I’d guess that individual members would be more likely to be left of center, but it wasn’t really an issue that came up.) Second, most of the negative comments were directed at a couple of the European centers, specifically.


I will say that, despite the fact that I didn’t believe the extreme claims, I can’t say that they weren’t cause for concern. I’ve had a little experience with organizations prone to being embroiled in drama. Even if the organization has many worthwhile attributes and individuals, that inclination to attract drama will inevitably bite a member in the ass. In my experience, one can’t just sit on the sidelines and pretend the drama won’t affect you. If you do, you’ll just be all the more surprised when you feel your ass being bitten.


My web searches confirmed that the New Acropolis was an offshoot of the Theosophical Society. This wasn’t kept a secret. In fact, I believe it was mentioned in the Tibetan Buddhism lesson, and I know it was intimated at various junctures in the course. I was aware of the Theosophical Society, and–in particular–the falling out that Jiddu Krishnmurti had had with them. (A parting of ways that was apparently amicable on Krishnamurti’s side as well as on the side of some from the Theosophical Society’s side–though some Theosophists apparently went dark.) Krishnamurti is among my favorite thinkers, and it was a concern that New Acropolis was an offshoot of an organization whose beliefs were so at odds with his own. I don’t want to deify Krishnamurti (that would be ironic as he was explicit that he didn’t want followers and believed followers were missing the point), but many of his ideas resonated with my own–particularly those on organizations to advance personal or spiritual development (of which he [& I] are quite skeptical.)


Krishnamurti opposed the idea of religions, sects, and paths as means to betterment.  The New Acropolis would likely agree with Krishnamurti’s stance on religion as they’re explicit in their antipathy for the ritualism of religion. However, Krishnamurti went further to oppose entities that proposed that they had a path to guide one to some enlightened state. This is where the New Acropolis would presumably part ways. They seem to believe they have such a path. The aforementioned framing that they do seems to designed to carve out the waypoints so that future courses can work on building the path.


There’s  a common saying that a good education teaches one HOW to think and not WHAT to think. By that definition, I wouldn’t classify the New Acropolis’s approach as a good education, generally speaking. The course is set up for a one way flow of learning. There’s no time for discussion or refutation of the concepts presented in the course. The teacher presents concepts in a lecture format, and there are designated times in which students can ask questions (in many cases outside the class time when peers might have ideas to add or questions  to build off.) Despite the nominal homage to ancient Greece, the New Acropolis pedagogic approach is at odds with the Socratic method by which students are asked questions rather than being presented with answers.


What’s my beef with their use of the term “philosophy?” Depending upon how it’s used, I don’t have a problem with it. When they’re explicitly talking about their particular philosophy, (i.e. New Acropolis’s philosophy) it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s only when one uses the term in a general sense, e.g. as in “school of philosophy,” that students might expect that they’ll learn rational approaches to consider life’s big questions for themselves, rather than learning a specific ideology’s answers to said big questions.


The term “theosophy” would be much more honest and apropos, though I understand their reticence to use that term–given their strained relationship with the Theosophical Society–which has a corner on the market of that term. The fact that the New Acropolis takes the divine or supernatural as a given is hard for me to reconcile with philosophy, which implies an open discussion and refutation of ideas–particularly of those notions for which there is little or no evidence.  I’m not saying that philosophy can’t and shouldn’t consider the question of whether there is a god (or spirits or divinity or whatever term you prefer.)  I’m just saying that taking the existence of such ethereal entities as a given flies in the face of rationality, because the existence of such ethereal entities isn’t rooted in observation or application of logic but in emotion. Faith is the domain of theology (or theosophy, if you prefer), rationality is the domain of philosophy. A lot of the teachings in this course were couched in terms of feelings or the beauty of ideas rather than in rational investigation.


It might seem that I was quite negative about the experience, and that I wouldn’t recommend it for others. That’s not exactly true. There are some individuals that I wouldn’t recommend it for, but others that I might. I did learn a lot during the course, and brought away a number of ideas that I think will be of service to me. For example, we did a throwing stick concentration exercise that was eye-opening (no pun intended), and there were many ideas and stories presented in the course that provided good food for thought. There was only one class /idea that I found not only completely baseless but also potentially dangerous.


(FYI-If you’re wondering what idea that was, it was in the penultimate lecture on astrological cycles (yeah, I know, right?)  The lecture presented both Indian Maha Yugas and Greek zodiac cycles. Guess what? According to both mythical sets of cycles we’re currently in the crappiest of times. [FYI- If there’s anything my education and experience as a social scientist taught me, it’s that notions of determinism applied to the sphere of human behavior are inevitably wrong. The physical world may be clockwork, but the minds of men are a clockwork orange.] Why do I think these conceptions of cycles may be dangerous? Because a lot of damage is done by people who go through life thinking the world is feeding them a steady diet of shit-sandwiches. This is, of course, all perception. Nature–unlike gods and other supernatural mythical creatures–doesn’t draw targets on the backs of individuals, nor weigh them good or evil. However, now you’re going to tell people who already see the world through dung-colored glasses that your [pseudo-]science shows they were born in the worst of times. That–my friends–is not helping make a better world.)


I think those interested in the course should be aware of three things: 1.) a god, gods, the divine, the supernatural, or whatever you wish to call it is taken as a given by the course (you’re not going to see a Nietzschean counterpoint in this school of philosophy); 2.) you aren’t going to get a broad-based exposure to philosophy in that a.) the ideas are all from ancient traditions and b.) the concepts presented are cherry-picked to be consistent with the New Acropolis agenda (which isn’t to imply the agenda is onerous by the standards of sects or religions, but there’s an agenda) ; 3.) you should banish any expectations of engaging in rousing class discussions or dialogues with the teacher because it’s very much a one way street.  If you’re good with those three factors, you may want to give it a try. You might find it’s the right approach for you.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture PracticeYoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I was excited to stumble across this book because it proposed fresh insights into the history and development of posture-centric yoga. Singleton’s premise is that yoga as it’s practiced in studios around the world today (i.e. practices focused heavily on asana, or postures) has almost nothing to do with historic yogic traditions and is to a large extent European (or Western) fitness practices fed back to the world with a patina of Indian-ness instilled by a few Indian fitness teachers (e.g. T. Krishnamacharya and students.) This is a bold and stunning hypothesis. The problem is that Singleton leaves plenty of room to doubt his thesis. I’m not saying that I’m certain Singleton is wrong, but after reading the book I’m no more inclined to believe his hypothesis than when I first read the book blurb.

The book consists of nine chapters:
1.) A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition
2.) Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans
3.) Popular Portrayals of the Yogin
4.) India and the International Physical Culture Movement
5.) Modern Indian Physical Culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation
6.) Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor
7.) Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance
8.) The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival
9.) T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival

One can see the flow of the book in this chapter listing. It begins by describing the ancient yogic traditions (e.g. Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga.) Singleton then goes on to put immense weight on very few voices that were speaking globally about yoga in the late 19th century—largely European but notably including Swami Vivekananda. (This, by the way, is where I noticed the most glaring weaknesses of the book. There seems to be an assumption that what the most vocal people were saying during this time was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.) One will note that the late 19th century is an arbitrary point to make the critical juncture for a study of yoga—this era’s sole importance seems to be in that that’s when Europeans started entering the scene (and documenting it in English and Western languages to a large extent.) I understand that there may have been a dearth of information previously; however, I’m also skeptical of equating the sum of truth with the sum of what is documented.

The book then shifts into the early 20th century when Singleton proposes the proto-postural yoga is beginning to coalesce with both Western and indigenous Indian influences. Singleton writes extensively about this period, and presents what he believes is the path by which postural practice evolved over a short time into modern yoga as we know it. The book ends in the mid-20th century with an extensive discussion of T. Krishnamacharya and his pack of brilliant students (i.e. B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.V.K. Desikachar, and Indira Devi) who are responsible for a lot of how yoga is practiced today (for virtually all of modern yoga by Singleton’s reckoning.)

It should be noted that this book is put out by an academic press, Oxford University Press, and there’s all the front and post matter that one would expect of a scholarly press publication. This includes an introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

So, you might be wondering how I could have so much doubt about the veracity of the book’s central claim—a book written by a Cambridge educated scholar and published by Oxford University Press. It’s, after all, chocked full of facts that are designed to bolster Singleton’s argument. I’m certainly not suggesting that Singleton lied or presented false facts (however, I have–and will further–argue that he frames facts throughout the book to diminish those statements and facts that run counter to his argument while wholeheartedly accepting statements that validate his argument—even when the people whose statements he leaves unchallenged would seem to have their own agendas. I don’t know, perhaps T. Krishnamacharya was—as Singleton intimates though never explicitly accuses—lying when he claimed to have received his sequence and approach from a scripture he was taught by a Himalayan master. However, interestingly, he would be lying to minimize his role in the development of yoga rather than to increase his fame. This stands in contrast with the European authors who Singleton readily accepts who were seeking to build their bona fides as experts in the esoteric systems of India and the Himalaya, who arguably had a lot to gain from being seen as having a full understanding of these systems.)

The best way to understand the root of my skepticism is to tell a make-believe story. Imagine a race of aliens came down to Earth. For whatever reason, they want to understand (presumably among many other things) the Roman Catholic Church. One astute alien scholar notes that, after having reviewed not only the entire Bible but a vast canon of theologian discourse, there is scant mention of sitting or kneeling. However, when cameras came around, there came to be clear evidence of pews and kneelers in the church. The aliens conclude that Catholics had always stood during worship, but with the advent of the camera they began to sit and kneel. The aliens, having big and bulbous butts, conclude that the Catholics have become concerned that their own big, bulbous butts will be captured for posterity (pun intended) by the cameras and have, thus, opted to adopt postures that would more adequately provide cover. In the present day, sitting and kneeling are the bulk of what Catholics do with their bodies when [overtly] practicing their religion, and so it must be those postures–rather than abstract notions like achieving “grace” are now the most critical part of the practice. (Besides, the earliest photos of kneelers came from Protestant churches, so perhaps Anglicans taught Catholics how to kneel.)

If you haven’t figured it out, in my little scenario, the late 19th century Europeans who were writing the English language tracts that formed the heart of Singleton’s research material are the aliens with big, bulbous butts. I would propose that the Europeans aren’t viewing yoga completely objectively but through the lens of their own experience and desires. Furthermore, they are also only giving weight to what they see and hear (which may or may not be a full picture.) I would further argue that just like Catholics don’t devote much text to discussing sitting and kneeling in the documents of the Vatican library doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history of those practices. Postural practice is:

a.) not the critical end result that everyone is concerned with even if it takes up the bulk of one’s time in [overt] practice. It’s certainly true that there are a vast number of yoga practitioners whose only interest is in the fitness aspect of the practice. However, there are also many who spend most of their yoga reading time learning from Vedas and reading yogic philosophy even though the bulk of their practice time is asana.
b.) extremely difficult to convey via text but readily conveyed through demonstration and hands-on teaching. If you were a Catholic and wanted to teach someone kneeling, would you write them a three paragraph text description of the process, or would you just demonstrate how to kneel and correct any glaring (albeit unlikely) deficiencies in form.

At no point does Singleton get into the postural details of individual asana. He mentions another scholar that supposedly has done some of that work, but Singleton feels it’s not critical. However, it’s very hard to prove what he’s trying to prove without getting into that level of detail. Yes, there will be similarities between various systems of stretching because of the nature of the body. For example, European stretching systems had a forward bend that looks reminiscent of paschimottanasana (the body folds that way and stretching the hamstrings is one of the most important functions in any stretching regimen), and it shouldn’t be surprising or revealing if the first photograph of this posture was in a European gym (the fact that Scandinavians had cameras before Himalayan yogis isn’t a sound basis to conclude that Himalayan yogi’s learned to bend forward from Scandinavians.) A there are a lot of postures that two systems might reasonably independently discover, but one also can’t rule out that the Indian yogi taught the Europeans and not the other way around. (I know it’s hard to comprehend in the era of FaceBook, but failure to be documented does not equal failure to be true. The farther one goes into the past, the less of what happened is going to be documented, and some cultures are going to be more likely to document events than others. e.g. Would our aliens be right or wrong if they concluded that 85% of humans are females between the age of 12 and 24 years old because 85% of the selfies posted on the internet are among that group. )

Singleton’s book does have some graphics. They didn’t always help his case, however. I was struck by how few of the fine details of the European postures correspond to practice as we know them, while some of the very old paintings look almost exactly like present day asana. (If one accepts that the fact that they didn’t have the greatest grasp of capturing perspective back then isn’t indicative of how flat the postures and people were back then.) I’ll readily admit that I wouldn’t definitively count Singleton wrong on my subjective observation of the pictures, but it does leave me with a lot of room for doubt.

I suppose the next question is why I didn’t completely pan the book. Three stars isn’t a tragic rating. I thought the book contained a lot of good information and food for thought (even if it fell far short of proving its central hypothesis.) I particularly enjoyed the chapter on T. Krishnamacharya and his now-famous student body. I’ll also say that part of why I came away from the book with such a muddled perception of this history is that Singleton doesn’t hide facts that are damning to his case, but rather presents them and then tries to marginalize them. A prime example would be the Hatha Yoga Pridipika (HYP), a 15th century text that mentions a number of the asana considered classic yoga postures today (some of which form the core of a Hata practice)—though admittedly HYP emphasizes the importance of only four seated postures.

I can’t say that Singleton didn’t help give me pause to wonder about the truth of the received understanding of yoga’s evolution. I’ve practiced yoga in places as varied as India, the U.S., Thailand, and Hungary, and I found it shocking how similar the practice is around the world. This bodes well for the argument that yoga as it’s practiced today has coalesced recently. By way of contrast, there are many myths about how one martial art is the ancestor of another but the two systems often look nothing alike. (e.g. I’ve studied Kalaripayattu, which many believe was the ancestor art taken to China by Bodhidharma through Southeast Asia, but which today looks nothing like Kung fu or Muay Thai. Furthermore, Kung fu styles usually look quite unlike the Korean and Japanese martial arts that they are said to have inspired.) If the latter among these martial arts did come from the earlier, they evolved apart quickly. While the evolution into different martial art forms is quite possible, it raises the question of why yoga should be so similar internationally. A skilled yoga teacher would likely give a given student the same alignment adjustments for, say, Warrior I, regardless of whether the teacher was in Prague, Manila, Tokyo, or San Diego.

I can’t say that I’d endorse Singleton’s argument. It would take much more precise information for me to buy it (and it’s likely that said detailed historical information doesn’t exist.) However, if you’re interested in the history of yoga, you might want to check out this book. Your conclusions may differ from mine, but even if they don’t I suspect you’ll learn a thing or two of interest. Yoga Body was reasonably priced as a Kindle book when I bought it.

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