Fall/Winter 2018 Book Reviews


Will Johnson
Cannabis in Spiritual Practice: the Ecstasy of Shiva, the Calm of Buddha
Inner Traditions, Rochester VT 2018

As lawmakers introduce new legislation to federally Free the Weed, many states already acknowledge the legal right of cannabis to be a plant, an herb adults can choose to use recreationally and medicinally. But is there a place for pot in spiritual practice? For Buddhists following the Five Noble Precepts, the answer appears pretty clear as the fifth precept is: Refrain from taking intoxicants. The other precepts, which together are a guide for enlightened behavior, include; Refrain from harming living things; Refrain from taking what’s not given; Refrain from sexual misconduct and; Refrain from lying. Good ground rules, indeed. The five precepts provide a foundation and support for the transformation that takes place through awareness practice, and whether you’re a meditator or not, following these simple directives will help you avoid strife and conflict with others. As a decades long teacher of Buddhist dharma, Will Johnson fully embraces these precepts during the long meditation retreats he teaches, and insists his students do the same, including refraining from consuming any mind-altering substances. He doesn’t do this to follow tradition, he does it because it works. Cannabis stimulates thought, and the practice of the sitting Buddha is to calm the tumultuous mind.

But at home, Johnson explains in Cannabis in Spiritual Practice, he makes a distinction between his purification practices and his celebration practices. He enjoys what he calls the sacrament of Shiva while doing body-oriented practices such as yoga, dance, music, aerobic walks, and exploring the energies of touch with his wife. Shiva, the great Hindu god, consumed bhang, a liquid cannabis mixture that caused his body to move spontaneously. Shiva teaches us that awakening happens through movement of the body. Johnson includes specific guidelines and meditative instructions for exploring the use of Shiva’s herb through sitting meditation, entering into the One sound, partnered gazing, and ecstatic dance.

If you’re drawn to include cannabis in your spiritual practice, use it as Shiva did — sacramentally, to open the energies of the body. If you aren’t interested in using cannabis, know that all the exercises, including The Sutra of the Dancing Shiva, are still effective. You don’t need cannabis to awaken sensation. If you are drawn to include cannabis in your activities, be aware of overindulging; with just one toke, feel the body relax. Call out for Shiva to come, “Bom Shiva!” By calling out to Shiva in this way, as the wandering Shiva babas always do, you’re also calling out to yourself, to the place in you that is conscious and available to feel the current of the cosmos moving through your body. Using this small “homeopathic dose” will help you open to the energies of Shiva without the accompanying mind chatter or restfulness that can come from using a heftier amount. The goal isn’t to get stoney or become a couch potato, but to have a somatic experience. Remember, Buddha sits, Shiva dances. Feel the sensations of the body, the current and innate intelligence that constantly pulses through you. Allow your body to move, as it wants to, without thought or intention.This is the dance of Shiva, contracting and releasing, tensing and yielding, no matter how subtle, constantly moving, one motion leading to the next.

For Johnson, the addition of cannabis isn’t hypocritical or a snubbing of the traditional five precepts. He uses Shiva’s sacrament because it helps awaken awareness to the somatic experience of the body. In a reimagining of the original precepts, Johnson removes the negative don’t-do-this language of the original Buddhist Precepts (Don’t take intoxicants), and reorients it to a code of adult responsibility. Saying much the same thing as the original five precepts, the Five Precepts of Embodied Responsibility holds us accountable for our actions in positive terms:
Honor life.
Be generous in all ways with others.
Be clean in your sexuality.
Mean what you say, say what you mean, speak with truth.
Put into your body only what feeds and nourishes your body and soul.



Albert Amao Soria
Awaken the Power Within: In Defense of Self-Help

TarcherPerigee, New York, NY 2018

Self-help is an eleven-billion dollar industry. What a task it is to sift through the plethora of books and programs in trying discern what’s helpful. Sociologist Albert Amao Soria is sympathetic to the needs of the dedicated self-help seeker as he himself is one. In Awaken the Power Within, he brings his experience as a student of the mystical, metaphysical and occult to evaluate both esoteric and conventional self-help. Authentic self-help is actually just listening to the guidance of the inner voice of the higher self. Some of the most helpful and effective self-help practices come from traditional esoteric thought. Many of these old teachings are repackaged and commercialized to gain profit; still other programs make false and overreaching claims, and Soria’s names them. He tells of his disillusionment following the hype of the video “The Secret,” which he watched in someone’s home, paying seven dollars admission, along with twenty others eager to learn the newly discovered secret occult knowledge that even Oprah promoted with fanfare. But there was nothing new; the secret was simply The Law of Attraction, a concept that’s been part of the American New Thought philosophy for over a century, and one that was widely disseminated by Esther and Jerry Hicks through the nonphysical being Abraham. Further, “The Secret’s” Law of Attraction manifests nothing unless it’s combined with the Law of Deliberate Creation and the Law of Allowing.

Soria’s is also critical of the work of Eckhart Tolle, having attended a weekend workshop knowing nothing about Tolle beforehand and finding the workshop both simplistic and boring. In addition, Tolle’s talks and writings completely dismiss the power of the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind can be our greatest healer, both physically and mentally, yet it also allows pseudo-gurus to convince people they lack the power to change unless they purchase solutions in the form of books and seminars.The subconscious mind uses deductive reasoning, so what we say we want needs to be in congruence with our actions and beliefs. If a person wants health but doesn’t eat healthy food or exercise or breathe properly, that person is instilling negative suggestions into the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind takes its conclusion from whatever premise we give it. This is how placebos work, through the powerful subconscious. When people believe medicine will heal them, even if they receive a placebo, it’s the belief in the healing that cures them. Almost all people credit something or someone else when they are healed. Robert Park, a university physics professor points out, “We recover from most of the injuries and illnesses that afflict us without either prayers or medicine. Like all animals, we have built-in repair mechanisms… Modern medicine can often intervene to assist nature in the healing process. But if the patient then recovers, how do we know the medicine was responsible?” Medicine, placebo, prayers, miraculous or spontaneous recovery? As Dr. Bernie Siegel says, “All healing is self-induced.”



Sarah Jane Hinder
Yoga Bear

Sounds True, Boulder, CO 2018

People of all ages enjoy moving and breathing with yoga. Yoga Bear helps even the youngest yogis and yoginis can get in on the fun. This colorful board book introduces simple yoga poses to little ones, inviting them to act like favorite jungle animal friends. Roar like a proud lion, stretch fingers and toes like a tiger roaming through the leaves, and swing and sway like an elephant with a big trunk. As children play along with the chunky book, wiggling their eyes around like a lizard, and stretching like a snapping crocodile, adults will recognize the poses as an authentic yoga flow practice. When it’s time for nap or bed, sloth is a perfect animal friend pose for everyone. Stretched in child’s pose, sloth gives a sleepy time yawn. Close your eyes and breathe.



Amy Blackthorn
Blackthorn’s Botanical Magic: the Green Witch’s Guide to Essential Oils for Spellcraft, Ritual & Healing

Weiser Books, Newburyport, MA 2018

Green witch and horticulturist Amy Blackthorn knows there’s power in plants. Her main magic ingredient is fragrant essential oil, which is the plant’s soul distilled to its finest point. Blackthorn’s Botanical Magic is a guidebook for the magical practitioner stuffed full of plant knowledge, recipes, ritual and history. Moving through the alphabet from Angelica to Vetiver, each plant description includes scientific and horticultural information, magical uses, warnings and herbal lore. Orange, for example, relaxes and combats depression. It can be inhaled, diffused, or used topically with care. Its sign is Leo and its magical uses are for joy, prosperity, attraction, beauty and sensuality. To spark happiness, visualize the sweetness of life while you peel and eat an orange. Restore a murky aura  by adding a drop or two of sweet orange oil to a tablespoon of salt, stir well and add to a warm bath.

For the beginner, a botanical magic starter kit need only include four essential oils; bay, frankincense, myrrh, and lavender. It’s suggested to learn as much as possible about these four plants before adding more to your collection. Making hundreds of recipes from one plant you know really well is just as valuable as knowing hundreds of plants. Botanical magic taps directly into the heartbeat of Earth, the realm of magic, to which you add your will, desire and energy. You are the magic ingredient. The botanicals assist by lending an extra connection to the outside world. Blackthorn shares that magic is agency, and you can create magic without needing a lot of witchcraft accoutrements. A child’s birthday party has candle magic. The candles on the cake are lit, the singing of the birthday song raises the energy and sets the intention, and the birthday child blows out the candle, cementing the intention. This is the process for candle magic: decide on a goal, visualize the result, focus on your intent to manifest the result, light the candle, and set it and forget it. Let the magic do it’s work!



David Dillard-Wright
A Mindful Evening

Adams Media, Avon, MA 2017

Imagine the soothing ritual of a child’s bed time. A warm bath, being held close while hearing a relaxing bedtime story, then tucked in under soft covers to drift off to peaceful sleep. As teenagers and adults we don’t bring comforting stuffed animals or well-loved security blankets to bed with us; instead we’re likely to put our heads on our pillows thinking of worries from the day or anxiety about what is ahead of us tomorrow. Instead of relaxing into slumber we’re often tense and exhausted. How much better to go to bed thinking, “What a great day! Can’t wait to get up and see what tomorrow brings.” The most restorative sleep comes after we complete each day with a calm mind and an open heart. But evenings, with dinner to be made and dishes cleaned, and pets, children and other loved ones cared for, can be hectic. Homework, laundry and other unfinished nighttime business doesn’t exactly whisper tranquility as we flop into bed.

But if we take just a few minutes to switch gears before we rest, we can set the tone for a peaceful night’s sleep. A Mindful Evening is a collection of 200 short essays and exercises to help you let go of what has held your attention for the last twenty-four hours. Instead of focusing on how the day has stirred your own joys and sorrows, consider your part in the larger, ever changing world. If xenophobic news stories keep ruminating in your mind, try focusing instead on offering hospitality to strangers. Hospitality as a duty is a core ethical imperative in most religions, yet we’re living in a time of fortress mentality. How can we come home to ourselves if we can’t welcome others? Breathe deeply and search your own consciousness for any animosity you may have towards someone who is not like you. Breathe into your heart center and remove any traces of resentment you find. Resolve to be more welcoming to all people. Resolve to speak for justice for all.

Boundary rituals, to make a change from one part of the day to another, are particularly useful in the evening. Think Mr. Rogers, as he changed from his blazer and shoes into his play cardigan and sneakers. Also, the way we ready children for bed is a boundary ritual. A change of clothing, meditation or a short reading, for example, can each help underscore a transition into the night. Reading, especially if done at or near bedtime, is best done from an actual book because light from the screens of electronic devices can mess with sleep cycles. It’s a good idea to keep electronic devices out of the bedroom anyway.



Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush
Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Love and Dying

Sounds True, Boulder, CO 2018

Teachers Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush share a many decades long friendship and an unwavering curiosity about what it is to die consciously. Walking Each Other Home is an enlightening guide for anyone who is ever going to die. Shared as a series of unfolding intimate conversations, they explore what it’s like to be close to death, and what it’s like to be at the bedside of friends who’ve died. They offer practices for preparing for one’s own death, such as instructions for welcoming the guide, and advice for being in loving presence with another who is dying. Guidelines for being a loving rock for the dying include: Be yourself; Let go of your own fear; Don’t lose your sense of humor; Practice sacred listening; Don’t talk about the afterlife unless you are asked; and, most of all: Be love; send love. Some people, such as Ram Dass’s father, George Alpert, never want to talk about death, and it’s important to honor individual choices. Others, like Jean Yeomans, want help with the dying process: “Help me die, Ram Dass. I’ve had enough. I’m so bored.” Ram Dass explains to Jean she’s bored because she’s busy dying all day, and dying is such big drama. We’re all dying; we just don’t stay busy doing it every minute of the day.

As we approach our own death transition, according to the Tibetan Buddhists, the five elements that composed and sustained our body begin to dissolve. The earth element is withdrawing when we become weak and frail, and when we lose control of our bodily fluids the water element is dissolving. The fire element dissolves when our mouth and nose are dry and our breath is cold, and warmth starts to leave the body, and sights and sounds are confused. The element of air is leaving when breathing becomes harder and harder. And then, as mind consciousness dissolves and breathing stops, the element of space withdraws too, as we return to our original state, soul. To prepare for this return to our true nature, meditate to practice being in the moment. Sitting in nature is also helpful. Observe the changing nature of trees that have fallen and are rotting, notice new shoots growing and flowers that are blooming and dying. Nature doesn’t resist death. Ram Dass says, “If you know how to live and to love, you know how to die.”

Gail Lord is a freelance writer living in Massachusetts. Please send book review copies to 51 North Street, Grafton, MA 01519 or email socbookreviewer@gmail.com.

See also:
Spring/Summer 2018 Book Reviews
Fall/Winter 2017 Book Reviews