A Tour Through the History of American Metaphysical Religion

Raise your hand if you’ve ever attended a séance, sat in meditation, done yoga, consulted a psychic, read tarot cards, purged in a sweatlodge, prayed with tobacco, read esoteric literature, executed a karate chop, attempted tantric sex, shouted hallelujah at a revival, practiced astrology or alchemy, dropped a tab of acid, bought a book at Bodhi Tree bookstore, consulted an oracle, hearkened to an end-of-the-world prophecy, speculated about (or encountered) UFOs, worn a crystal, chanted a magic spell or mantra, or even dreamt of wandering in the Himalayas and encountering a Tibetan master or stumbling across Don Juan down in Mexico?

If so, welcome to the American Metaphysical Tradition! And if you haven’t, where have you been for the last 400 years?

While the study of “AMR” is a newly emerged academic specialization, author Ronnie Pontiac sees it more broadly as a “catchall metaphor for the esoteric beliefs and practices that have found a home in the melting pot of America,” and himself as a “tour guide to the rough-and-tumble world of spirituality American-style.” Pontiac’s 600-page American Metaphysical Tradition: Esoteric and Mystical Traditions in the New World spans “four centuries of America’s metaphysical saints, grifters, misfits, revolutionaries, visionaries, eccentrics, and some important thinkers who were far ahead of their time.” Continue reading “A Tour Through the History of American Metaphysical Religion”

We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made on

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

As I gradually accustomed myself to seeing through the worldview of the pre-Colombian peoples of the Amazon and Andes, I began to perceive the lineaments of archaeological sites in ways I previously hadn’t been able to. At Ollantaytambo, for example, after ascending to the Sun Temple I found that the features of the severely defaced jaguars carved upon the Wall of the Six Monoliths were far clearer, lying just beneath the scars left by Spanish vandals.

This sudden seeing of what has long lain in plain sight is hardly a new experience. Yet, the revelation of the deep past is a cat and mouse game, our unseen inheritance a plaything in the hands of the industrial forces unleashed upon Peru.

This fact was driven home to me some time after my return from the ancient temple complex of Chavín when, in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning, I walked out of Takiwasi after an ayahuasca ceremony. Continue reading “We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made on”

On Listening to Ravens

From “The Servant and the Raven, “a fantasy novel I am writing inspired by the Brother Grimm’s old fairytale, “The White Snake.” In this excerpt, the two friends, Caedmon mac Cumhaill and Egil Skallagrimsson, resume an earlier conversation about the uncanny powers of ravens.

When the young bard finally returned, the sun had just slid behind the Valley’s high wall and the land within taken on a cool rich emerald hue. Neither youth felt the need to speak. Sitting a little distance from Caedmon, his back against the wall, Egil drew a bone flute from an inner pocket and played meditatively upon it for a while. He then set it beside him, and, as if off-handedly, said, “Speaking of ravens…”

Caedmon turned and studied him. His new friend’s eyes were set in a distant gaze, as if he were about to launch into a tale that had to be gathered up from some far-away region.

“When I was a boy, I travelled much with my father. Those days the petty kings no longer dared stir out of their castles, so strong had the Volsung overlordship become, and so they contented themselves with hunting, whoring, and listening to songs from wandering bards such as my father. It didn’t hurt that my dad was a magician of the sleight-of-hand variety either. Making gold coins appear out of a lordling’s ear always went down well among the rustics.”

Egil laughed bitterly, the memory of those old days still strong within him. Caedmon listened with fascination – what had prompted the bard to share this story with him?

“Of my exiled father’s high art and lineage,” Egil continued, “the kinglets in their tankard thumping halls knew nothing, nor did they care. We eked out a living, and during winter the times got lean indeed.

One evening, my father sat with me before the stingy fire of a miserable inn, tossing our pouch of gold coins up and down in his hand. It was getting perilously light. Outside, an icy wind was gusting out of the North and the dark clouds blacking out the stars over the mountains promised another heavy fall of snow. Although my dad said nothing, I knew we’d need to make the shelter of the next castle soon or freeze in the land of the inhospitable Odin’s Folk.

Yet even in the worst of circumstances, my father never lost his ear for a tale.” Continue reading “On Listening to Ravens”

Answer to Daedalus: A Review of Psychedelic Integration

There’s an old Greek tale about a master craftsman named Daedalus who built a labyrinth to contain a monster, a half-man, half-beast who consumed offerings of human flesh. When the beast was slain, suspicion fell upon Daedalus as an accomplice and he was imprisoned in a tower along with his son, Icarus. There Daedalus turned his genius to fashioning wings, which he assembled with feathers, rags, and wax. As he fitted the wings to his son’s arms, he warned him: “Don’t fly too near to the sun, my boy, lest the wings melt and you plummet to your death.”

For Icarus, escaping the labyrinth and sailing into the empyrean was so enrapturing that he became reckless, flying closer and closer to the sun. Finally, the sinews of his wings melted in the searing heat, and he fell into the depths, leaving his father to grieve over his broken body.

Marc B. Aixalà’s Psychedelic Integration might be subtitled, “An Answer to Daedalus,” so sincere and thoroughgoing is its quest for answers to the grieving father holding the shattered ego of his youth in his arms.

How many readers of this review have sat unaccompanied after an ayahuasca retreat or psychedelic experience, Daedalus-like, grieving their fallen self without real hope of resurrection? And how many have, nonetheless, painstakingly (or miraculously) reintegrated their shattered being, and found their wings no longer quite so waxen in the aftermath? Most would, no doubt, say such deep work is not possible alone – and that finding someone skillful in the art of integration straight away could have spared them and others much suffering. Continue reading “Answer to Daedalus: A Review of Psychedelic Integration”

The Mind of Plants: A Review

Potawatomi elder and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer once reflected, “Had the new people (the Euro-American invaders) learned what Original Man was taught at a council of animals – never damage Creation, and never interfere with the sacred purpose of another being – the eagle would look down on a different world.”

Indeed, there would be eagles to look down on us now instead of pigeons.

Yet she reflects further, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “Maybe the task assigned to Second Man is to strive to become naturalized to place, to throw off the mind-set of the immigrant. Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in the ground, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend upon it. Because they do.”

Yet how are we to come home to this Earth, this Turtle Island, upon which most of us, children of invaders and immigrants as we are, have never truly walked? How are we to “go native” — except through our storytelling?

The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence is an eloquent and loving step in that direction. Continue reading “The Mind of Plants: A Review”

How Stars Became: A Creation Myth by Maitreya Tindall

My father used to tell me a story, a story that his father told him and his father had told him, about a time when animals were free. The story about how stars became. Father said that there was a time when, gazing up into the night sky, instead of the dark bluish sky dotted with stars you saw pure light. Heavenly, almost. One glance at it and you’d feel as if all your worries melted away, soothed by the light, its warmth sinking into your bones. Every night, all the animals would gaze up into the sky for hours on end, bathing in the radiant light.

But one day that all abruptly ended because of one grasshopper’s idea.

One night no different than any other, as all the animals were bathing in the golden light, Grasshopper had an idea. “I should fly up there. Being a winged creature, I’m sure I could do it. If the light is incredible from down here, it must be something of dreams up closer to it.” The words escaped his mouth before he had time to stop them. The whole forest went quiet for a few seconds, then, as if planned, all the birds exploded out of the trees. They had heard him. Feathers scattered everywhere for a chaotic few seconds, covering the sky with all different colors. Grasshopper, who had also taken flight, struggled in the midst of the chaos. After seconds that felt like hours, he dropped back to the ground, where he stayed hidden in the long grass. There he is to this day, not daring to fly above the grass for fear of being trampled by the ferocious flurry of feathers. Now, he only jumps above the grass in a feeble attempt to get a glimpse of the light.

Meanwhile, far from grasshopper swarmed the birds. The smaller, less powerful birds fell back down to earth, their wings tattered by the sharp talons and ferocious wings of the bigger birds. As soon as the remaining birds touched the light, they were set afire. Shrieking and squawking in pain, the panicked birds began flapping their wings in a desperate attempt to stop the flames from swallowing their bodies. After a few agonizing minutes, the flames died down. The large brown birds that had touched the light were no more. In their place loomed scaly creatures flapping their huge wings. Spikes ran along their necks and backs, their beaks were painfully twisted into scaly snouts, and sharp teeth lined the inside of their gaping mouths. Dragons!

Doomed they were to seek darkness in the depths of caves hiding from the light, yet greedily they stowed away gold coins in a feeble attempt to replace the heavenly light. The smaller birds, on the other hand, had been transformed into phoenixes: large birds with the tips of their feathers still in flames, glowing a radiant reddish orange hue. Cursed to live on in this forsaken world for all of eternity, unable to die, they would burst into flames whenever their bodies became too old. Once more, they were born in scathing flames.

For they had angered God. The light is a holy thing, a blessing to the animals, and the birds had greedily gone up seeking for more bliss. For this God punished them. And to stop other birds from trying to fly to the light, he covered the sky in an endless cape of darkness. Every night instead of the accelerating light there would only be shadow. Though other birds continued to try to reach the light, desperately poking holes in the infinite cape, trying to get through was pointless. Like bugs to a bulb, they banged desperately, all their efforts in vain. And to this day, every night all the birds flock up to the cape, poking holes in the night sky, in hope to once more bathe themselves in the heavenly light. And those are the stars we see today.

Dead Hope: A Thanksgiving Tale by Maitreya Tindall

It was raining, dark rain clouds covered the gloomy sky, Raindrops pounded in the tiny coop’s roof like nails. I shifted uncomfortably in the straw. I lifted my head drowsily as my vision cleared. I glanced around. My friends lay snoozing in the straw shuffling towards each other for warmth. Suddenly, something cold and wet splattered on my head. “Ugh not another leak!” I groaned. Sitting up, I shivered. I guess I should wake up the rest of the coop I thought wearily. I dragged myself out of the comfy straw bed and walked to the coop door glancing through the thick barbed wire. I sighed. Longing swelled in my chest. Longing to feel the wind through my hair and the grass touching my feet instead of the rough dry shed around. I turned around regretfully. Well, there’s no use thinking about it now.

Once I had awakened my friends, we all huddled in groups murmuring excitedly to one another as we waited impatiently for our feeder to come and deliver us scraps. “What do you think it’ll be today?” I asked Raya excitedly, “Maybe they’ll give us some moldy bread as a treat today!” Raya exclaimed happily, “Or maybe some hard raisins!” Finn piped in. The chattering was suddenly interrupted by the creak of the coop door opening “The feeders here!” Jack said. A large turkey wearing a messy button-up shirt, some filthy jeans, and a straw sun hat entered the coop with a black dirty bucket filled with all sorts of leftovers. Behind him stood a turkey I had never seen before, wearing a black trenchcoat and carrying a shiny black suitcase. Continue reading “Dead Hope: A Thanksgiving Tale by Maitreya Tindall”

Look What a Lot of Things There Are to Learn! Jeremy Narby’s “Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco and the Pursuit of Knowledge”

Jeremy Narby’s Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge is an elegant little tome (minus the endnotes it weighs in at 87 pages) that richly deserves a close reading and rereading. It’s a work you want to put on your bookshelf and keep there. For what it does is a rare commodity in the hyped-up world of the psychedelic goldrush: it slows down and listens.

And who would have imagined there is still so much to learn about tobacco and ayahuasca? Continue reading “Look What a Lot of Things There Are to Learn! Jeremy Narby’s “Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco and the Pursuit of Knowledge””

Singing to the Waters

On August 2nd in the early afternoon, we were gathered in the meadow on my land in Mendocino singing “Happy Birthday” to my daughter, Maitreya. She had just turned 12. As the cake was being sliced, one of the children in attendance spoke up: “Is that fog?”

I took one glance into our ancient redwood forest and broke into a run. “That’s smoke!” I cried out. “We’ve got a fire!” Drawing closer, I saw the interior of one of the towering old trees, already hollowed out by a long-ago conflagration, blazing. Whipping my phone from my back pocket and calling 911, I raced over to the neighbors and banged on their door crying out, “Fire!”, and then plunged down into the woods. By the time I got there, the flames were ascending the interior of the tree like a snake and were aggressively climbing upwards. Our whole forest was threatened. Our whole neighborhood was threatened.

Through my daze of adrenalin, I tried to do my bit in rallying our response, but garden hoses were useless. It was only when our friends from the local volunteer fire department pulled up in their 4,000-gallon tanker that the fire could be extinguished.

We were lucky that day. There was no wind to spread the fire, we caught sight of the smoke in time, and the fire department was swift in their response, but I was in an adrenalin haze for a couple of days afterward. Our forest is our life – six acres of redwood trees, some of whom were already sailing aloft when the stones of the Norman cathedrals were being laid in England. Without them, how would I live?

Beneath our land runs a stream, an underground watercourse that feeds these soaring pillars and keeps our woods emerald-green, even in the heart of summer. As I watch the water levels (I can literally gaze down into our well) drop inch by inch during this drought, I wonder if we’ll make it through. I look up at the sky every day. Check the weather report. We’ve ordered huge capacity water tanks and are preparing to drill far deeper than the mere 30 feet of our present well.

Some days I’m seized by a low-grade panic. What happens to us, to our forest, if the rain ceases to come?

Stalking just over the horizon are war and disease, refugees and the homeless. Economic, social, and ecological systems evidence their slow-motion collapse. Dictatorship looms on the Right, and the Left becomes progressively fanatical and silly.

What to do? Having grown up on the streets with no family, one of my primary motivations in moving to this remote area of the coast was to provide a safe haven for my daughter, a “paradise” in its old Indo-European meaning of a “walled garden or fortification.” Indeed, the name of the land when we purchased it was already “Saranam.” “Refuge” in Pali, the language of safety in the Buddhist tradition.

Yet the world’s on fire everywhere. Continue reading “Singing to the Waters”

Your Grandma’s Guide to Ayahuasca

Written in a kindly, didactic tone and grounded throughout in solid research, Grandmother Ayahuasca: Plant Medicine and the Psychedelic Brain is the book you would give to a starry-eyed youngster eager to set forth to the Peruvian jungle, or your grandma who just expressed interest in that unpronounceable plant you keep talking about. It is a primer: a straightforward introduction to the neurobiology, culture, history, and experience of ayahuasca.

It is, in short, highly accessible. Grandmother Ayahuasca offers up-to-date information and reflections upon the neurology of psychedelic experience, the anthropology of plant medicine use, quantum mechanics, therapeutic effects of plant medicines, epigenetics, plant sentience and sapience, and shamanic technique — along with the usual collection of “trip reports.” It concludes with a valuable discussion of the challenges of integration of entheogenic/psychedelic experience and reflections on its role in healing the anima mundi.

It also has a touch of naivete. Continue reading “Your Grandma’s Guide to Ayahuasca”

Time Travel

When I was a boy in grade school, my class went to visit an old California hacienda. I don’t remember any details from that field trip except one: standing in a golden beam of light dusted with motes, in a room of broad expanse, breathing in and feeling the creaking, old aromatic wood surrounding me. In my memory, there is a fragile sense of timelessness and of profound rightness. This is California my body told me. A land of trees and clean air and sunshine. A place where you can just breathe and the world comes to you through your senses.

Maybe it was a hard thing to lay on a boy who was growing up in suburbs smelling of stale chemicals, where the wind never brought any good news. My body has ached for that still sunshine ever since.

But my mind has ached for time travel. Continue reading “Time Travel”

The Koan of the Historical Christ

Koans are riddles of existence, enigmatic statements that probe the depths of Buddha nature. Posed by Chinese sages with a mischievous sense of humor, they challenge the meditator to get inside the phenomenon of emptiness, to realize it for oneself and embody it. Responses to koans are often acted out in the dramatic setting of dokusan, or personal interviews with one’s teacher.

When a koan is trotted out before a nonmeditating friend, it can lead to extraordinary contortions. For example, this little charmer:

Say something without moving your lips and tongue.

Simple. But as your clever friend strains their wits to solve the dilemma, mumbling out answers or scribbling in the dirt with a finger, it’s obvious the riddle is perfectly impenetrable without logging some serious time on the meditation cushion.

Koans teach about transformation too, but not the magical kind. At least in my own experience, they teach how life and death are the same matter. Indistinguishable. And that when we realize “self-nature, self-nature that is no nature,” we go beyond “mere doctrine.”

Yet they must be penetrated first. Seen into. Experienced from within, not tinkered with from without.

The ethnobotanist and Amazonian explorer Mark Plotkin recently challenged me to write a book on Jesus as shaman. When I broached the idea to my 11 year old daughter, she protested vigorously.

“Jesus is way bigger than that!” He’s a spirit and you can’t claim he’s just one thing or another.”

And she was right. There are hundreds of “Jesuses” in contemporary culture, and if you add the many versions of Jesus that existed in the past – from the Jesus of St Francis of Assisi to the Jesus of the Inquisition — it’s justifiable to declare, as my daughter Maitreya did, any version of Jesus as glaringly incomplete, if not downright absurd.

Or worse: A crock, a holdover of an era of mystery religions that cling to us like a vestigial growth.

From the perspective of what we now know about the historical Jesus, and it’s become quite a bit, Christianity is an aberration. When the Temple fabric was rent, it was the soul of Humanity that was torn and no serious mind, able to hold the tremendity of the grief and joy of our species, can deny it.

Jesus, the healer, the wonder worker, the prophet, the lover of the people of Israel, the Messiah whose heart was broken well before his body upon a cross, was very likely a significantly different figure even from the one depicted in the Gospels, written as they were decades after Jesus’ life and by then divorced from the Jewish community of Jesus — whose family continued worshipping in the Temple, the heart of Judaism.

Continue reading “The Koan of the Historical Christ”

What the Psychedelic Renaissance Could Learn from Amazonian Shamans

When ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin showed up on the UC Berkeley campus for this interview, he was accompanied by a shaman. And it was no blond guy with dreadlocks from Brooklyn who presided over weekend ayahuasca ceremonies, either.

Don Fernando was a member of the Ingano tribe, a soft-spoken middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap who Plotkin had brought to the United States as part of a campaign to help him protect his people from the violent incursions into their region by timber and oil companies. Unlike most anthropologists, who may work to document dying cultures before they are snuffed out, Plotkin’s organization, the Amazon Conservation Team, or ACT (www.amazonteam.org), has been remarkably effective in doing something to protect the rainforest, its peoples, and its shamans.

Cultural and ecological survival is high-stakes work, however. Before arriving, Plotkin said, “You can photograph me if you want, but no photos of the shaman. If his image got back to Colombia, it could be very dangerous.”

As one of the few remaining swashbuckling ethnobotanists trained by the legendary Amazonian explorer Richard Evans Schultes, Plotkin also has a deep, abiding love of the healing and visionary plants of the rainforest. He is the author of several books: Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, Medicine Quest, and his newly released The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know.

While he claims that as a scientist the “technology of the spirit” practiced by shamans is beyond his understanding, it is likely that the two men who settled into their seats in the campus coffee shop knew more about shamanism than could be found on the shelves of the nearby UC Berkeley library.

Continue reading “What the Psychedelic Renaissance Could Learn from Amazonian Shamans”

A Psychedelic Eucharist? Brian C. Muraresku’s The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name

Over the years, I have seen some wild callings. A geologist shows up in the rainforest to study a mysterious boiling river, drinks the brew of the local shaman, meets the spirit of the river and becomes the ecosystem’s champion on a global scale. A young man drinks ayahuasca and, through much fortuitous circumstance, gets his medical degree at Stanford so he can champion the use of plant medicines in healing. A young woman has a vision of the womb of life at a treatment center for addiction in Peru and goes on to study the phenomenology of healing experiences with icaros, or sacred songs, becoming a pioneer in the psychotherapeutic discipline of integration of psychedelic experiences.

The list goes on, of course.

This is what makes self-confessed “psychedelic virgin” Brian Muraresku’s “calling” to reclaim the memory of the original Christian sacrament all the more interesting. Stirred by the recent resurgence of psychedelic research, Mr. Muraresku, a lawyer and Jesuit trained scholar of the Classics (oh, let’s throw in Sanskrit for good measure) embarked upon a timely quest: to take up the tracks of classicist Carl Ruck, chemist Albert Hofmann, and mycologist Gordon Wasson in their groundbreaking 1978 publication, The Road to Eleusis. This work, largely reviled and ignored, wove a compelling case that the kykeon, or sacrament utilized in the ancient Eleusinian mysteries, was psychoactive and thus the visionary experience reported within the Telesterion were facilitated by sacred plants.

Continue reading “A Psychedelic Eucharist? Brian C. Muraresku’s The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name”

Tree: A Definition

I was recently invited to contribute to a glossary of “vital vocabulary” being compiled by Eliana Otta for the Ecoversities website. I chose the word “tree,” and quickly realized my task was impossible.

Tree: A Definition

In the forest on my land in Mendocino grows a Redwood tree. As ancient and strong as a dragon, she was a sapling when the pillars were first laid in the Norman cathedrals. Now she vaults into the heavens like Yggdrasil.

At times, I place my hand upon her thick bark and, her knight, swear to protect her to my dying breath, even as the sound of chainsaws oppress her forest. Other times, I crouch like a trembling mouse in her shelter, the agony of raging fires and deadly viruses overwhelming me. I hold on. “Root me. Come into my dreams. Free me of fear, oh holy one.” My head lies in a deep crevice in her trunk, gazing into the blue sky shimmering with green leaves.

The futility of defining her makes me laugh, she whose being, rooted in symbiosis throughout the forest, encoding and transmitting information from the sky, filled with centuries of wisdom and knowledge, is beyond the encompassing of my tiny awareness.

I only ask that I may be held by her, and all the Earth’s forests, until I breath my last into Her, the Great Mother of us all.

Goblins Are Cool!

When my daughter Maitreya was four years old, I read her her first novel, The Hobbit.

She was doing pretty good with it! She followed along as she met Bilbo and Gandalf, and showed interest in the dwarves and thought Rivendell, Elrond and the rest of the elves were good too. But her fascination only really awoke when we had followed the party up into the Misty Mountains and watched Thorin and Co get abducted by goblins!

Oh no! As the dwarves were led down into the dark, netherworld of the mountains, driven forward by ruthless, whip-wielding goblins singing horrible songs, Maitreya turned to me, excited, and declared, “Goblins are cool!”

I agreed. “Yeah, goblins are cool!” I said.

Continue reading “Goblins Are Cool!”

Alcohol Is a Spirit: Healing Addiction in the Native American Church

The word Spirit, the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” comes to us via the Latin spiritus, “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” and is related to spirare “to breathe.” Its plural form, spirits, or a “volatile substance,” is an alchemical idea, and it was only in the 1670s that it usage narrowed to its present meaning: “strong alcoholic liquor.”

Yet lurking within our modern, dry categorization of strong alcohol as “spirits” this original sense of animating power remains firmly entrenched. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff put it, a good sherris-sack “Ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” Not only that, it breathes courage into the soul, it “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris.”

This is the language of spiritual inspiration, not mere infatuation with a physical effect. Perhaps we should take ourselves at our word. What if alcohol really is a spirit? What is approaching it as a spirit is an effective way to heal addiction to alcohol?

Continue reading “Alcohol Is a Spirit: Healing Addiction in the Native American Church”

The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again

There is an old paradox discussed by Heraclitus, that great ancient philosopher of impermanence, called “The Ship of Theseus.” It poses this question: “Consider a ship that has, over its long lifetime, had every part replaced during its repair so that not even a single nail from its original construction remains. Is it still the same ship?”

There have been many solutions offered to this puzzle down through the centuries, and I can’t think of a moment where it’s more relevant to our generation than with the burning of Notre Dame. Already the international community is rallying and pledges towards its rebuilding are flowing in. The French president says that it will be “more beautiful than ever.” Yet will it be the same cathedral? Will it be Our Lady? Or will it be a replica, such as the pseudo-Cave of Lascaux, the reproduction of the original Paleolithic temple created to protect the original from destruction by tourist hordes? Beautiful, yes, but not the Cave.

Of course, our own bodies contain not a single molecule of our original version while purportedly containing atoms that once helped embody Shakespeare, Hitler, and Alexander the Great’s mortal frames, so from the perspective of this radical impermanence, all things really are essentially empty and utterly interconnected. Yet it’s impossible to shake that sense of continuity, of the accumulation of something called a “soul,” that remains the Ship of Theseus, even after all its timbers, ropes, and sailcloth have been replaced. It’s the “aura,” as the philosopher Walter Benjamin called it, which is accumulated through time and which cannot be replaced by “mechanical reproduction.”

The outpouring of grief over the immolation of Notre Dame is because, I believe, millions of us venerated Her as not just the heart of France, but as “ensouled.” For many of us, regardless of religious background and creed, She was a living being who we loved, with whom we had a personal relationship that has graced our existence.

I would like to share a story of Notre Dame that I hope will illustrate why. Continue reading “The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again”

Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

persephone page 13

The loss of the daughter to mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years…

The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one; it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter… Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

One definition of “myth” might be: “A once sacred narrative which has lost its original context.” Like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck on the high seas, we encounter fragments of myth, such as in Hesiod’s Theogony, drifting about detached from their original cultural setting and so read them as curious stories, quaint remnants, or illogical accounts of the cosmos.

What is lost in such fragments is the original wholeness of mythos, symbol, and ritual within which the myth had its transformative power. Continue reading “Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries”

Speaking Truth to Power

The president of Uruguay, Pepe Mujica, like a gadfly Socrates, lets the truth all hang out about the reality of economic progress in a recent meeting of world leaders in Rio:

For more info on this most remarkable of world leaders, who donates 90% of his income to the poor and chooses to live on his wife’s ramshackle farm instead of in the luxurious presidential palace in Montevideo, check out this BBC article:


The Medieval Quest and Beheading Games with Green Men

Robert’s new book, The Battle of the Soul in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an exploration of the inner struggle of pilgrimage as it was enshrined in this most beautiful of medieval English romances, is now available!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 1380’s by a cleric immersed both in Arthurian and Celtic mythology as well as the mystical traditions of his epoch, has fascinated scholars and translators from J.R.R. Tolkien to W.S Merwin. Robert’s book is the first to draw the connection between the courtly narrative of the poem and the “entry into unknowing” of the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius.

For more info, click here,

Encompassing the Amazon: Ayahuasca, Vegetalismo, and Cultural Survival

We are happy to share that Ayahuasca, Vegetalismo and Cultural Survival is now available for viewing below!

Generations of shamans, mad poets and intrepid researchers labored to give birth to this event on the endangered practices of entheogenic plant shamanism and the Amazonian ecosystem at City Lights, the literary mecca of San Francisco, with

Robert Tindall, author of The Jaguar that Roams the Mind

Lou Dematteis, author of Crude Reflections, which documents the environmental and cultural devastation left behind by Chevron in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Ralph Metzner, author of numerous works, including The Psychedelic Experience with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, as well as the more recent Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, and Sacred Mushroom of Visions: Teonanacatl

Dale Pendell, author of the trilogy Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path

We were fortunate to have this historic evening — City Lights was the publisher of The Yage Letters between Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs 25 years ago — captured on video. This video is the first in a series — please find the subsequent sequences on YouTube!