Spirituality

Book Review - Breakfast with Buddha

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a cross-country road trip with the Buddha? If so, you should check out Roland Merullo's spiritual novel Breakfast with Buddha, which will give you a glimpse of that experience.

My mother recommended this book to me a couple years ago and I filed it away on my "Want to Read" list but had mostly forgotten about it until an alert from Bookbub informed me that it was on sale for Kindle last year. So I bought it and then promptly forgot about it again. But I eventually got around to adding it to my list of "Books I'll Read Next" and started reading it in July.

The book sucked me in pretty quickly. It's narrated in first-person by the protagonist, a nice and caring family man named Otto Ringling. He is a highly intellectual editor of food books who has a bit of a skeptic streak running through his veins. At the beginning of the story, Otto's parents pass away, and he plans to drive his eccentric sister from New York to his home state of North Dakota in order to settle their family's estate. But somehow he ends up traveling with a Siberian monk by the name of Volya Rinpoche instead of his sister. Otto's disbelief toward spirituality or religion makes for a hilarious dynamic as the pair teach each other about their different backgrounds, cultures, and views on life—all while stuck together in a car for 1800 miles.

Breakfast with Buddha is perfect for someone who is looking for a lighthearted tale to kick back and relax with. But it's not all just fun and games. While there are plenty of laughs, there are also inspirational life lessons scattered throughout this book, and I look forward to one day reading the other books in this trilogy: Lunch with Buddha and Dinner with Buddha. I don't know much about them at this point, but my mom says that each one is better than the last. And she might be right—after all, she was about this one!

4/5 stars. 353 pages.

Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not

Joi Ito, writing for WIRED:

As a Japanese, I grew up watching anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which depicts a future in which machines and humans merge into cyborg ecstasy. Such programs caused many of us kids to become giddy with dreams of becoming bionic superheroes. Robots have always been part of the Japanese psyche—our hero, Astro Boy, was officially entered into the legal registry as a resident of the city of Niiza, just north of Tokyo, which, as any non-Japanese can tell you, is no easy feat. Not only do we Japanese have no fear of our new robot overlords, we’re kind of looking forward to them.

It’s not that Westerners haven’t had their fair share of friendly robots like R2-D2 and Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. But compared to the Japanese, the Western world is warier of robots. I think the difference has something to do with our different religious contexts, as well as historical differences with respect to industrial-scale slavery.

The Western concept of “humanity” is limited, and I think it’s time to seriously question whether we have the right to exploit the environment, animals, tools, or robots simply because we’re human and they are not.

A fascinating take. The Japanese are really onto something here.


Psychedelics' Buddhist Revival

Gabriel Lefferts, writing for Tricycle:

Buddhist interest in psychedelics has been around for a long time. Many seekers like to refer to them as “entheogens” to emphasize their spiritual value. Entheogen, derived from the Greek adjective entheos, translates roughly as “God-inspired” and is the root of the English word “enthusiasm.” Almost a quarter-century ago, Tricycle published a special section titled “Psychedelics: Help or Hindrance?” to address Western Buddhists’ somewhat behind-the-scenes fascination with these substances. Now, the willingness to explore them has gone more public.

A brief introduction to an ongoing debate within the Buddhist community concerning whether the use of psychedelics is acceptable for one's Buddhist practice, an argument that takes center stage in the book Zig Zag Zen.


Psychedelic History, Shamanic Exploration, and Palenque: An Interview with Matthew Pallamary

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Earlier this month I talked with author Matthew Pallamary about his new book, shamanic exploration, and what things were like during the birth of today's modern psychedelic community. Without further ado, here is our conversation:


Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Your most recent book, The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes But Home Is Where the Heart Is, came out last November and it covers a lot of ground. How would you summarize it to give the Think Wilder audience an idea of what it’s all about?

Ultimately it’s a study of objective perception. You can’t necessarily control your external environment, which is all the stimulus that comes into you from the world around you, but you are in control of how you choose to create reality with that input. In the book, I explore shamanism and visionary states—primarily with ayahuasca, but also with other substances—to show how you decide to show up, create in the world, and interpret your reality. And I backed it up with a lot of science. Some people say it was a little bit too much, but I was going after the atheists and the intellectuals. From the shamanic perspective, everything is energy. We perceive visually through lightwaves, we listen through sound waves… our brain is filled with multitudes of different waves. Everything around us is composed of vibration in one form or another. When you spend extended time in the jungle, you really tune your brain by altering your consciousness to other realms of perception.

The book is definitely chock full of science, and I can see why you would want to include it. It is written in the same language that atheists and scientific materialists use, which probably makes it easier for them to understand.

One guy who bought the ebook told me that he followed every reference that I included. Every reference. It was a bit crazy!

It's good that they're available, and if people want to explore them then they certainly can. You must’ve worked on the book for quite a while. How long did it take you to do research and write the book?

Interestingly enough, the book kind of wrote itself. But it’s based on a lifetime of research. My first experiences with altered states involved getting dizzy and hyperventilating as a kid. I was about fourteen when I first smoked weed and around that time I was sniffing glue, which was my basic training for altered states. A couple years after that I was turned on to megadose LSD—this was back in like ‘71 or ‘72. I’ve been fascinated with altered states and shamanism for years, and I’ve also been writing about it for years. This book in particular took on a life of its own. It’s always the best when that happens. A lot of this last book was stitched-together research that I found over the course of several months. Years ago, I took an honors course in anthropology called “A Forest of Symbols: Orientation and Meaning to South American Indian Religions”. I started tying that in with my psychedelic experience and the fact that there could be spirituality in psychedelics. In my earlier years that was a totally foreign concept to me. But Terence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods opened my eyes. It was a big influence. When it comes to this book, I was actually getting ready to write another novel and all of a sudden this one started pushing its way to the surface, so I just kind of rolled with it. Next thing you know, I was into the book. And it’s done really well. I’m happy with how it came out.

One of the questions that the reader confronts in the book's introduction is, “Who or what are we really?” How do you define yourself?

In this day and age, I consider myself to be a cosmic citizen. A lot of people over the years have called me a shaman. In the past, I’ve gotten indignant about that and I actually went off one time and felt really bad about it. Are you familiar with the C-Realm Podcast?

Yes—I’ve been a listener for a long time.

One time many years ago, the host called me a shaman, and I went off a bit too much. I actually felt bad afterwards, but I don’t refer to myself as a shaman. There are so many people running around like, “Hey I’m a shaman, here’s my business card,” you know? What I’ve finally come to terms with now is that when I get asked, especially in public, I like to say that everybody is a shaman. Most people just don’t know it and don’t realize it. I studied ayahuasca for 10 years before I found it, and now I’ve been going into the Amazon for close to 20. In my humble opinion, we are far more than we imagine ourselves to be, and we can limit ourselves by our perception. There’s an old American Indian saying that goes, “You really don’t know what another man’s life is like until you walk a mile in his moccasins.” So to me, to be a good writer—and even a good human—you have to have empathy and you have to realize that people have different perspectives and formative influences in their lives. They don’t see things in the same way. At this point in my life I’ve gone beyond that. I’d like to think that my perspective has shifted so I’m not caught in the polarities. The truth is always somewhere in the center, and I’ve worked my entire life to try to find it. When you find the center you transcend duality. You see things from the other guy’s point of view and then you have more compassion and you’re more open. As soon as you start defining things, you’re limiting yourself. The cosmos and reality as we know it is far more complex and multidimensional than most people realize. I spent years pushing the limits as far as I could, in a lot of different directions, to discover the nature of who and what we think we really are. I think that from the perspective of ultimate cosmic reality, we’re a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.

It’s a way bigger world out there than most people imagine and can suppose.

Absolutely. I think that ayahuasca, more than anything else, has shown me that. I’ve done tons of other things too, over the years, but that’s really the one that’s been talking to me the most.

So you studied ayahuasca for 10 years before you started working with it. What was that period of time like for you?

After the honors course in anthropology, I discovered the story of The Land Without Evil, which is my historical novel. It’s about first contact between the Jesuits and the Indians in South America, and it’s told from the Indians’ point of view, so it was all about shamanism. I did a lot of research at the UCSD library. This was before the Internet, so I would log into the UCSD library card catalog via modem and download pages of psychedelic content. A lot of this real groundbreaking stuff that you couldn’t find anywhere back in 1988. I spent $30 on a copy card, gathered books to copy on the machine, and took all the articles home with me. I wasn’t getting high at that time because I took a break for a while, but a few months after that I went into a headshop and there was High Times magazine. I said to myself, “Fucking High Times—that’s still around!?” I had read it back in the ‘70s, when it first came out. When I flipped open the page, there was an ad for the Entheobotany Seminars in Palenque Chiapas.

And that was the origin for the Palenque Norte visionary lecture series, right?

That’s correct. So I opened the magazine, and there were all these people that I had been researching independently on my own. They were going to be presenting! I ended up going to the first event in San Francisco in ‘96, where I met Sasha and Ann Shulgin, Jonathan Ott, Charles Grob, Wade Davis, and several other people. From that point I started going to the Entheobotany Seminars regularly. I went to one in Uxmal in ‘98 and then the next few were at Palenque, which is where I got to meet and hang out with Terence McKenna, Paul Stamets, and Christian Rätsch. I started recorded all the lectures on cassettes, and when Lorenzo Hagerty decided to start the Psychedelic Salon, I gave him a bunch of the lectures that I had recorded to help him get started. I had a lot of good friendships over the years, including one with Terence. He actually got the very first book from the initial hardcover printing of The Land Without Evil. So yeah, I’ve been steeped in this stuff for years.

It sounds like those early experiences played a big role in shaping who you have become. Thank you again for speaking with me.

You're welcome brother—we’ll talk again soon.


I am very grateful to Matt for sharing his insights and experience. Be sure to check out his website and new book here. If you liked this interview, you might also enjoy reading my review of The Center of the Universe and an excerpt from it that explores the ways that shamanistic cultures revere elemental spirits like the wind.

Image by k_tzito, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind: An Excerpt

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This is an excerpt from a chapter in Matthew Pallamary's most recent book, "The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes But Home Is Where the Heart Is."

Elemental spirits are universally revered in shamanistic cultures and one of the most respected among them is the Wind, an invisible force that can be harnessed as well as storm out of control, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The fact that it is capable of delivering so much power, yet has no substance, defines it as not only a direct link to spirit, but spirit itself; formless, invisible, energy. If we remain still, we have no perception of air when it is at rest and we perceive and characterize it as nothing as it registers nothing with any of our senses, making it a perceptual enigma.

Air is the most pervasive presence we know. It surrounds and caresses us both inside and out, moving across our skin, between our fingers, around our arms and thighs, sliding along the roof of our mouths and down our throats to fill our lungs to feed our blood, which keeps us alive.

We cannot speak, act, or think without the participation of this fluid element and we exist in its depths the same way fish live immersed in the ocean. We can feel it moving against us and often taste, smell, and hear it as it swirls in our ears or moves through whispering leaves, or when it changes the shape, moves shifting clouds, or sends ripples along the surface of a lake. The fluttering feathers of a hummingbird, a spiraling leaf as it falls, and the slow drift of a seed through space indicate the presence of the air, yet we can never see the air itself.

This unseen enigma holds the mystery that enables life to live and unites our breathing bodies to the world around us and to the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of this living presence, and what the plants breathe out, we and the animals breathe in, and what we breathe out plants breathe in. In shamanic thought, the air is the soul of the visible landscape that constitutes the secret realm where all beings draw their nourishment from. As the mystery of our living present, it is that most intimate absence felt as nothing where the present presences, providing a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.

Nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of the earth than a recognition of the air, wind, and breath as aspects of a singularly sacred power. By virtue of its pervasive presence, it's invisibility and its influence on all manner of visible phenomena, the air for oral people is the archetype of all that is ineffable, yet undeniably real and efficacious. Its obvious ties to speech in that spoken words are structured breath, and broken phrases take their communicative power from this invisible medium that moves between us lends the air a deep association with linguistic meaning and thought. Its ineffability is similar to the ineffability of awareness itself. Many indigenous people construe awareness or mind not as a power that resides inside their heads, but as a quality that they themselves are inside of along with the other animals, plants, mountains, and clouds.

In his book, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, James Mikhail McNely asserts that the Navajo term nilch'i, meaning Wind, Air, or Atmosphere, suffuses all of nature and is that which grants life, movement, speech, and awareness to all beings. Additionally, the Holy Wind serves as the means of communication between all beings and elements of the animate world, making nilch'i central to the Navajo worldview.

For the Navajo nilch'I is a single unified phenomenon of the Wind in its totality comprised of many diverse aspects of partial Winds, each with their own name in the Navajo language. One of these - nilch'i hwii'siziinii, or the "Wind within one", refers to that part of the overall Wind that circulates within each individual. The Wind within one is in not autonomous, but a continual process of interchange with the various winds that surround us, and is a part of the Holy Wind itself.

When referring to the multiple Winds like Dawn Man, Dawn Woman, Sky Blue Woman, Twilight Man, Dark Wind, Wind's Child, Revolving Wind, Glassy Wind, Rolling Darkness Wind, and others, the Navajo are not speaking of abstract or ideal entities. These entities are not palpable phenomena like gusts, breezes, whirlwinds, eddies, storm fronts, cross currents, gales, whiffs, blasts, and breaths that they perceive in the fluid medium that surrounds and flows through their bodies.

The Navajo conviction that all of these subsidiary Winds are internal expressions of a single, inexhaustible mystery comes from the observation that the multiple vortices made by their own breathing, heat rising in waves, or the branches of trees as they sway in the surging air. All these currents and eddies swirling around and inside them are not entirely autonomous forces, but momentary articulations within the vast and fathomless body of Air itself.

For the Navajo the air in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech has properties that European alphabetic civilization traditionally ascribe to an interior, individual human mind or psyche, yet by attributing these powers to the Air, and insisting that the "Winds within us" are continuous with the Wind at large, with the invisible medium that we are immersed in, Navajo elders suggest that what we call "mind" is not ours, and therefore not a human possession. Mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world that humans and all other beings participate in. One's individual awareness and the sense of a personal self or psyche is simply that part of the enveloping Air that circulates within, through, and around one's body, so one's own intelligence is assumed from the start to be entirely participant with the swirling psyche of the land.

Our English term psyche and its modern offspring psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy are derived from the ancient Greek word psychê, which denoted not just the soul or the mind, but also breath or a gust of wind. The Greek noun was itself derived from the verb psychein, which meant to breathe or blow while another ancient Greek word for air, wind, and breath, pneuma, gives us pneumatic and pneumonia, while signifying that vital principle which in English we call "spirit".

The word spirit itself, despite all its incorporeal and non-sensuous connotations is directly related to the bodily term respiration through their common root in the Latin word spiritus, which meant breath and wind, as well as being the root of the words inspire and inspiration. Similarly the Latin word for soul, anima gives us animal, animation, animism, and unanimous, which is being of one mind or one soul. It also signified air and breath. These were not separate meanings. Anima, like psychê, originally named an elemental phenomenon that comprised both what we now call the air and what we now term the soul. The more specific Latin word animus signified that which thinks in us was derived from the same airy route, anima, itself derived from the older Greek term anemos, meaning wind.

We find an identical association of the mind with the wind and the breath in numerous ancient languages. Even an objective, scientifically respectable word as atmosphere displays its ancestral ties to the Sanskrit word atman, which signified soul as well as the air and the breath. A great many terms that refer to the air as a passive and insensate medium are derived from words that once identified the air with life and awareness. Words that now seem to designate a strictly immaterial mind or spirit are derived from terms that once named the breath as the very substance of that mystery.

For ancient cultures the air was a singular sacred presence. As the experiential source of both psyche and spirit, it appears as if that the air was once felt to be the very matter of awareness, the subtle body of the mind, and that awareness, far from being experienced as a quality that distinguishes humans from the rest of nature was felt as that which invisibly joined human beings to the other animals, plants, forests, and mountains as the unseen common medium of their existence.

Like so many other ancient tribal languages, Hebrew has a single word for both "spirit" and "wind", the word ruach, the spiritual wind, which is central to early Hebraic religiosity. Its primordiality and close association with the divine is evident in the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible:

When God began to create heaven and earth - the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind (ruach) in God's sweeping over the water...

At the beginning of Hebrew creation, God is present as a wind moving over the waters, and breath, as we learn in the next section of Genesis, is the most intimate and elemental bond linking humans to the divine. It is that which flows most directly from God and man, for after God forms an earthling (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah), he blows into the earthling's nostrils the breath of life, and the human awakens.

Although ruach refers to the breath, the Hebrew term used here is neshamah which denotes both the breath and the soul. While ruach generally refers to the wind or spirit at large, neshamah signifies the more personal, individual aspect of the wind, the wind or breath of a particular body like the "Wind within one" of the Navajo. In this sense neshamah also signifies conscious awareness.

The ancient Hebrews were among the first communities to make sustained use of phonetic writing and the first bearers of an alphabet. Unlike other Semitic peoples they did not restrict their use of the alphabet to economic and political record keeping. They used it to record ancestral stories, traditions, and laws, possibly making them the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs that made them experience profound epistemological independence from the natural environment made possible by this potent new technology. To actively participate with the visible forms of nature came to be considered idolatry by the ancient Hebrews. For them it was not the land, but the written letters that now carried their ancestral wisdom.

Although the Hebrews renounced all animistic engagement with the visible forms of the natural world, whether with the moon, sun, or animals like the bull, which were sacred to other peoples of the Middle East, they retained a participatory relationship with the invisible medium of that world with the wind and the breath.

The power of this relationship can be inferred from the structure of the Hebrew writing system, the aleph-beth. This ancient alphabet, in contrast to its European derivatives had no letters for what we call "vowels". The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth were all consonants, so to read a text written in traditional Hebrew one had to infer the appropriate vowel sounds from the consonantal context and add them when sounding out the written syllables.

One of the primary reasons for the absence of written vowels in the traditional aleph-beth has to do with the nature of vowel sounds themselves. While consonants are shapes made by the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, or throat that momentarily obstruct the flow of breath and gives form to our words and phrases, vowels are those sounds made by unimpeded breath itself.

Vowels are nothing other than sounded breath, and the breath for the ancient Semites was the very mystery of life and awareness inseparable from the invisible ruach, holy wind, or spirit. Breath was the vital substance blown into Adam's nostrils by God himself who granted life and consciousness to humankind. It is possible that the Hebrew scribes refrained from creating distinct letters for the vowel sounds in order to avoid making a visible representation of the invisible. To fashion a visible representation of the vowels of the sounded breath would have concretized the ineffable and make a visible likeness of the divine. It would have created a visible representation of a mystery whose essence was to be invisible and unknowable - the sacred breath, the holy wind, so it wasn't done.

The absence of written vowels marks a profound difference between the ancient Semitic aleph-beth and the subsequent European alphabets. Unlike texts written with the Greek or the Roman alphabets, a Hebrew text could not be experienced as a substitute for the sensuous, corporal world. The Hebrew letters and texts were not sufficient in and of themselves. In order to be read, they had to be added to, enspirited by the reader's breath. The invisible air, the same mystery that animates the visible terrain was also needed to animate the visible letters to make them come alive and speak. The letters themselves remained dependent upon the elemental corporeal life world that they were activated by, the very breath of that world, and could not be cut off from that world without losing their power.

In this manner the absence of written vowels ensured that Hebrew language and tradition remained open to the power of what exceeded the strictly human community, ensuring that the Hebraic sensibility would remain rooted, however tenuously, in the animate earth. While the Hebrew Bible became a kind of portable Homeland for the Jewish people, it could never take the place of the breathing land itself, upon which the text manifestly depends, hence the persistent themes of exile and longed-for return that reverberate through Jewish history down to the present day.

The absence of written vowels in ancient Hebrew entailed that the reader of a traditional Hebrew text actively choose the appropriate breath sounds or vowels and different vowels frequently varied the meaning of the written consonants.

The apparent precision and efficiency of the new alphabet was obtained at a high price. For by using visible characters to represent the sounded breath, Greek scribes effectively desacralized the breath and the air. By providing a visible representation of that which was by its very nature invisible, they nullified the mysteriousness of the enveloping atmosphere negating the uncanniness of this element that was both here and yet not here, present to the skin, yet absent the eyes, immanence and transcendence all at once.

Plato and Socrates were able to co-opt the term psychê, which had been fully associated with the breath and the air, employing it to indicate something not just invisible but intangible. The Platonic psychê was not at all a part of the sensuous world, but of another non-sensuous dimension. The psyche was no longer an invisible yet tangible power continually participant, by virtue of the breath, with the enveloping atmosphere, but a thoroughly abstract phenomenon now enclosed within the physical body as in a prison.


I am very grateful to Matt for sharing this excerpt with Think Wilder. Be sure to check out his website and new book here. If you liked this excerpt, you might also enjoy reading my review of The Center of the Universe and an interview with Matt that explores psychedelic history, shamanic exploration, and Palenque.

Image by Free-Photos, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.