Book Review: Dion Fortune’s Book of the Dead (Crossposted)

October 25, 2012 at 7:26 pm (Death and Dying, Living, Spiritual) (, , , , , , , , , )

I am crossposting this on both of my blogs, since the subject matter is germane to both of them in different ways; I have different subscribers on both blogs, so I wanted to make sure no one missed it.

Dion Fortune’s “Book of the Dead”
published by Weiser Books
Amazon link: Book of the Dead

This book, which is probably better called a “pamphlet” at it’s very short 77 pages, was originally published in 1930 under the title, “Though The Gates of Death”. It’s not usually listed among her works due to its brevity, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon it while searching for new books to read on my Nook. This version was originally published in 1995 by the occult group she founded near the end of her life, “The Society of Inner Light”.

You’ve maybe heard of her before, because she was a strong influence on authors and occultists who created the Pagan traditions and thea/ology that we take for granted today. Diana Paxton and Doreen Valiente both credit her writings as a go-to when they were beginning what we now call Wicca. She’s also written one of the best books ever on the subject of psychic self-defense, titled “Psychic Self-Defense”. That is a book I frequently make students read and digest.

She was very active in the burgeoning occult underworld in the 1920’s and 30’s. Interesting to me, she had a nervous breakdown and went into a psychiatric institution right before she began having psychic and other magical experiences (madness path, anyone?). She studied various occult systems, including Crowely’s Golden Dawn, the Freemasons, and the hottest parlor religion, Spiritualism – a form of Christianity that held strong beliefs about being able to contact and interact with spirits of the dead and astral travel. She was also a “lay psychotherapist” (not far from what I do, sometimes) who had taken classes on the roles of psychology and psychic phenomenon from the Theosophists. And if that isn’t cool enough, there is scuttlebutt that she was one of the occultists the British government employed during WWII.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to find an E book version of her Book of the Dead. Working with spirits of the dead, and traveling to various other planes of existence, is something Ms. Fortune was very well known for. I was eager to hear what her thoughts were on the process of dying, and what the living can do to assist the dying in their crossing over.

These are the two things that the book focuses on the most – what the body and soul go through when one begins to die/what the soul can expect upon severing itself from the body, and what the living can do to assist the dying in making a gentle transition from life to death.

The first place that felt like a slap in the face (there were a few) is that she very strongly felt that there was no way that “natural death” could occur before “three score and ten years” (70). She explicitly states that dying from disease was not a “natural death”, because it meant that you were less than vigilant with your body. I believe this, like some of the other things I strongly disagree with her on, is a product of her era. This was before cancer was really known or understood, and although there still lingers some attitudes that some cancers are the patient’s “fault” (lung cancer, I’m looking at you!), I think our society’s view on those who contract terminal illnesses has radically changed since the 1930’s.

She describes three stages that a soul goes through after the last breath is released. The first is the disentanglement from both the “clay body” (your physical form) and the “etheric double” (how you envision yourself when you’re not looking at your body, basically). This can be assisted by those present at this stage by attempting to connect telepathically with the dying and give them permission and encouragement to move on. Also, having a source of prana (energy) present is useful – thus, the tradition of lighting candles and spreading flowers for the dead. Otherwise, the dying may use the prana from someone present, which she says explains why loved ones who suddenly feel tired shortly after the last breath have no explanation for it. I don’t know if I buy that entirely, since I know there’s a release of stress and energy when you know someone you’ve been sitting with is finally dead, and that might be confused for “stolen prana”. But it can’t hurt to have a good source handy if you’re sitting vigil for someone.

The second phase she calls “Purgatory” (remember, she was still seeped in Christian framework, even though she was an occultist). Supposedly, the soul is shown visions of their unrealized or unsuccessful desires. She talks about Karma a lot in this section, but I wonder if she only uses this term because it was the one accessible. The soul either has to overcome its attachment to these desires and failures (and thus move on to become a Master on the Higher Planes) or be reincarnated in order to live out another life to learn how to overcome them. Interestingly, Fortune states that while souls are in this phase, which starts “a few months after death”, they are not contactable, and cannot hear the summons of their loved ones on earth.

The third phase, “Heaven World” depends on what the disposition of the soul is – it can either ascend and become a “higher being” – a soul that assists in God’s work, or works with other freshly dead souls, or some other purpose – or you prepare to be reborn into a new incarnation. There is a time between phase 2 and 3 where a soul may be communicated with again, but Fortune warns that if you continually contact a soul in this phase, or bring them to mind/heart on a regular basis (like on their birthday, or an anniversary), you may be inadvertently keeping them from moving forward. If the departed does not feel like their old life is sorted, and their loved ones can move on and live their own lives apart from them, they cannot either ascend or be reincarnated. This meshes with some of my experiences working with dead who have been trapped due to similar circumstances.

I found many of her insights incredibly interesting, especially her thoughts that those who are psychically or magically aware have a much different death experience from those who are unused to fairing forth from their earthly bodies. She gives very veiled references on some exercises one can do to make that transition easier, and to retain consciousness during these processes. She attributes that most people cannot remember past lives, or what the after life is like, because their souls were “asleep” during them, and they attribute the experiences to a dream. She points to those who have a good handle on who they were in past lives as being more magically gifted in one way or another, because they are closer to becoming “masters”.

However, there was some stuff in there that I just found wacknutty. As I posted on Facebook, she states forthrightly that if a soul is severed from their body traumatically, like in a car accident, that soul will find itself inside the body of a baby about to be born. She claims that it is old midwives wisdom that if a baby is born with “old eyes”, it will die prematurely. Yes, she says that the traumatically severed soul jumps into a baby’s body so it can die properly, shortly after birth. I really wonder if she had a friend/friends who had lost children and were looking for some occult reason for it, and this was what Fortune came up with. Otherwise, it just seems too cruel, even for me.

I found this to be a really great read to get me in the mood for Samhain, which I will celebrate this weekend. It made me think very hard about what it must be like for a soul to leave a body and find out that it is more than the flesh, and gave me much to think about not just about where we go when we’re dead, but how we get there. It also gave me some incredible insights on things I can do should I find myself sitting vigil next to someone who is terminal. Some of it is definitely a product of the era it was written in, and there’s a lot of Christianity to translate to your own belief system, but the translation isn’t that hard. (She might have even been using it because it made it easier to publish in that time.) I suggest giving it a read, and it’s super short (77 pages). If you are a Nook user and wish to borrow my copy, complete with my own notes and thoughts, drop me an email and I’d be happy to lend it out.


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Butterflies, Little Deaths, and the Afterlife

October 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm (Death and Dying, Spiritual) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Pagans find ourselves gearing up for Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”), a celebration of the end of the agricultural year. We also talk of the “thinning of the veils”, when it is easier to reach out to spirits, ghosts, and other sorts of conciousnesses that reside Elsewhere. It is a good time to receive divination, and to reach out to your Ancestors and Beloved Dead.

It’s been a hard year for me, death wise. I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s, and two dear friends to an overdose and a motorcycle accident. It’s been hardest for me because I haven’t had the right kind of time and energy to really grieve – this year has been so full of life-changing events, it’s been hard for me to have the luxury of time I can spend just grieving and feeling the absence of those I care about. I am hoping to get some of this when I attend a ritual for the Ancestors/Dead next weekend.

It is timely, in its own way, that Newsweek recently decided to publish an excerpt from an upcoming book by Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, which is coincidentally being released for sale a week before Samhain. I’m sure, since the author is a Christian, this is not on purpose.

However, the excerpt from Newsweek is an incredibly interesting point of view about the Afterlife from a neurosurgeon who, before his own experience, thought that the best stories were likely the random firings of a dying brain, and the worst were invented by someone looking for meaning or attention. He had dismissed the “near death experience” as a scientific concept and moved on.

Then something interesting happened, something that he could not discredit: Dr. Alexander found himself in a coma for seven days, due to a strange manifestation of meningitis caused by E. Coli that had entered his cerebrospinal fluid and began to literally eat his brain. What makes his experience scientifically interesting is that by his account, his “afterlife” experience happened while there was no recorded or witnessed activity in his cortex – the part of the brain that is thought to control thought and emotion, y’know, the stuff that makes us human – at all. This means that he can safely rule out random misfiring or any other heretofore scientific theories as to why humans report these kinds of experiences. He also reports that the doctors were actively discussing discontinuing treatment when his eyes “popped open” and he came back from the coma, with no medical explanation as to his recovery.

Although he describes himself “in the old days” (before the coma) as nominally Christian, his Afterlife experience has only the barest resemblance to the classical descriptions of “Heaven”. If the excerpt is any indication, part of the problem with his retelling is that he’s just too scientific to craft the artistic wordsmithing necessary to describe things such as “the sound was palpable, almost material, like a rain you can feel on your skin but can’t get you wet.” Granted, his larger goal is to try to document his experiences for fellow scientists, so they can start to understand not just the bio-mechanical reasons for his “journey”, but maybe they can also begin to glimpse the world the way Dr. Alexander does now that he has seen things from a greater perspective.

One of the details of his story that was particularly interesting to me was the presence of butterflies. I’ve developed quite the love for the little creatures, and honestly it’s always bugged me. It seems like such a predictably hippie Pagan, girly sort of thing to be fascinated by. One of the deeper drawing points for me is this idea that just when you think you have a handle on who you are and how you relate to the Universe, something begins to change outside of your control and then you have to learn the same damn lessons over again. Eventually, this cycle (like all cycles) leads to death, but meanwhile it serves as a reminder that you should never take your current reality as a given. One can never tell when the cosmic apple cart is headed for a tilt.

I appreciate that symbolism woven into an experience of the Afterlife. The idea that yet again, we’re just undergoing another Hagalaz that leads to fertile ground yet again. We practice dying so many times in our lives, but we never really sit and allow ourselves to think of these things as little deaths. We don’t take time to mourn when our lives undergo large shifts – like getting married/divorced, moving to another location, changing genders, moving into another phase of life – and it’s actually seen as kinda selfish and wrong if the change is seen as primarily a good one. The media is full of examples of heterosexual men being sad before their wedding day due to the radical change of lifestyle that marriage brings, but we diminish it by calling it “cold feet”.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to recognize the little deaths in your life, and especially the big ones, such as my relatives and friends who have passed away in the last few years. I have to accept that as I grow older, friends and family dying will become a more common experience, and maybe if I can teach myself to properly grieve now, it might help me in the long term.

As for what happens to us when we die, I do believe that personal experiences are largely tied to one’s expectations. Dr. Alexander’s experience of angel-like spirits and a large booming voice doling out life advice belies his Christian upbringing. Even if he was only a casual believer before his coma, since he hadn’t done any real exploration of Otherside mythology, he saw and experienced something that relates to his understanding. In the same vein, there are others that describe something akin to the Christian Hell, and I honestly think it’s a residual in their soul, feeling as though they are beyond redemption, that leads them to this journey. We all get the journey we need, and if we need to see big burly Vikings drinking in a big hall, or being touched by the icy hand of a half-dead woman, or paying the Ferryman to cross over into a gloomy cave, in order to feel like we understand where we are, that’s what we see.

I know this from my own experiences dealing with places that contain Spirits of the dead. I was once asked to speak to a Death Deity that I had no experience with (nor really much experience in his pantheon), and once I was given a key that unlocks, for lack of a better term, the Big Gates Of Dead People Land, I saw that there was an infinite amount of space, and people were gathered at different points in this space, sorted by what they envisioned the afterlife to be.

Yes, I know this can sound like a wimpy, pantheist explanation how everyone is ultimately “right” when it comes to where we go when we die (tell me you haven’t heard the joke that ends, “That’s because they think they’re the only ones here.”), but in a way we’re all wrong, too. The vast expanse that is the rest of the Universe, outside of our little spaceship Earth, is too big for the human mind to truly wrap its little brainmeats around. Sound like something else I’ve described before? Yes, when it comes to most things theology related, my working theory is that we grasp onto what works best for us and our understanding of Things and Places way too big for us to comprehend. And yet, all our little brainmeats want to do is to understand, to know for certain that we’re all not headed for a dirtnap decomposition and nothing more. So we try, and we continue to have these near-death-experiences to keep reminding us to meditate, to journey, to divine, to pray, and do whatever else we need to, to prepare ourselves for that time when we face the end of this part of our own existence.

What do you think happens when we die? Have you spoken to spirits of the Dead, and have they given you any answers as to what their experiences have been like? How do you envision the Afterlife? Do you believe Dr. Alexander’s experience is universal?

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Power of the Poppy: A Book Review

January 12, 2012 at 11:30 am (Chronic Pain, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Since I mentioned “Power of the Poppy” in my post, “Mistress Poppy“, and also because I love Kenaz Filan’s work, I decided to post my thoughts on this interesting tome dedicated to the awesome power, and incredibly real danger, of P. Somniferum, otherwise knows as the Poppy plant.

I was both impressed and disappointed at the same time, if that’s possible.

I found hir amount of historical and medical research on the uses of opium and it’s extracts entertaining and informative, if a little dry at points. It’s a big topic to cover, as P. somniferum is used to make everything from heroin to Vicodin, from opium to codeine. There’s a lot of history, from almost prehistoric medicine men to modern day addiction, but Kenaz finds a way to weave it altogether in a solid narrative. I feel like I know more about opiates than my pain management doctor does, at least anthropologically speaking.

It’s not easy to write a book about one of the most powerful addicting substances in the world from a harm reduction viewpoint – that is, Kenaz never endorses or condemns the use of various opiates – instead, zie clearly attempts to state both the wonderful effects of the drug, and the legal and physical consequences from it’s possession and use. I mean, I assume the author of such a book would have to understand that most of the people attracted to it’s subject matter are either already using some form of opiates already, or are keenly interested to try. So instead of preaching pure abstinence and overemphasizing the legal restrictions on it’s use, zie addresses those issues with enough emphasis to make it clear that there are risks involved, without judgement on those who decide to walk that path. Zie even addresses the needle issue by stating that clean needles are the best bet, but if you must resort to a used needle, zie gives you ways to reduce (not eliminate) the risk of HIV and Hepatitis transmission.

I mentioned to Ninja, as I was reading the book, that I learned more about the drugs I take (oxycodone, and OxyContin) from this book than I did from the doctor who prescribed it to me. I would advise persons on long-term opiate therapy to read this book; although at times Kenaz writes from the assumption/attitude that everyone who uses opiates is doing so illegally or purely for entertainment purposes, zie does share valuable information about the various forms of legally prescribed opiates, both their history and their current use. I specifically appreciated the part where zie made a clear distinction between addiction and physical dependance, something that most laymen miss. (Addicts continue to use, even when there are dire life consequences ; people with a physical dependance have bodies that have adapted to the presence of the opiate and therefore need it for both continued well-being and to stave off withdrawal, but once they stop using it, they don’t fixate on it’s use.)

I created an experience around reading this book that I would recommend to others. There is a section called Acolytes, that details the life and times of several famous opiate users. Most of them were entertainers or artists of some sort, and so I would stop for a moment, search the Internet for media related to the person, and integrate that into my experience of the book. For the musicians, like Charlie Parker and Layne Stanely, I played their music in the background while I read their chapters. I watched the movie “Man with the Golden Arm”, which was heavily referenced in Nelson Algren’s chapter, as well as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” during the O’Neill chapter. It would be neat if there was a website that collected these resources as an addendum to the book. (I found the majority of these things available on YouTube.)

Where my disappointment came in, was that as a fellow spirit worker, I had really hoped there would have been more spiritual information about the spirit ally of Poppy. It gets a passing mention now and again, but there isn’t even a chapter dedicated to those who wish to work with Her in any sort of real sense. I know that Kenaz has worked with Her as a real Spirit Ally, and I would have loved to read a little bit about hir experiences in doing so. I’ll admit; I read the book looking for this part, and when it didn’t show up, I was let down a bit. I get that the book is likely more marketable without all that woo-woo shit, but this is Kenaz Filan, author of the Voodou Love Magic book. I don’t think hir fan base would have been disappointed with a little woo.

In addition, although I admit that zie did address the addictive qualities of these drugs, I felt that the descriptions of what it’s like to come off of them and the withdrawal involved was a bit tame. As someone who went from using 100mcg Fentanyl patches for 3 years who detoxed down to nothing in three months, I can attest that opiate withdrawal is a horrifying experience not to be minimized in any way. If I had known how bad it was going to be to come off of Fentanyl, I would have never agreed to its use. I feel like whether a person is thinking about the recreational or therapeutic use of these substances (including Methadone), you should be fully aware that kicking the habit is a terrible, body-wracking experience you will never forget.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read. I’d recommend it to people who work with sacred plants, those who are already involved with or interested in opiate use, those who are on long-term opiate therapy, and those who are generally interested in how medicines/drugs evolve over time. It’s a whole lot of book for someone who just wants to find out how to make poppy tea, although the instructions are in there.

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Strengths and Weaknesses: Part I

December 28, 2011 at 11:02 am (Living With Chronic Illness) (, , , )

(Or “How to Be Helpful and Useful to Someone You Love With a Chronic Illness”)

This is the post I keep promising to write. It seems to have grown longer and longer the more I think on the subject. It gets a little rambling at points, but I promise it’s worthwhile. Part II will get posted later this week.

I grew up with a mother with a chronic illness. It didn’t help that my father suffered from rampant, untreated mental illness until he, too, had chronic COPD from smoking three packs a day. I grew up with many adults wanting to reach out to me and my family, but feeling awkward about how to do it in such a way that didn’t feel patronizing, belittling, or making us feel like some sort of obligation or hardship on them. I’ve seen a lot of attempts, both good and bad, by people who deep down wanted to do something good and useful for our family.

I remember once, when this woman decided we needed help cleaning our house. Now, granted, I grew up in a very cluttered house. We tried to keep up, but my mother was physically incapable and my father was emotionally disengaged; so as children, we didn’t really know how to take the reigns and put forth an effort. So there was this woman from our church who decided to come forward and organize our house. The fact that we needed the help was undisputed. The fact that this was a good way for her to show her love for us is also not in debate. But how she went about it?

She came in the house with another woman whom we didn’t know. I’m still not sure who this other person was. And to be clear, the woman wasn’t a close family friend, either – she was just some woman from our church. We knew she was coming, and our mother had warned us that we’d be expected to help her; when she came in, we were all generally ready (as ready as young children faced with a day of chores in front of them could be). But she decided that, I guess in some sense to make it feel like a luxury, that she didn’t want our help. My younger brother and sister felt relieved, but it just made me feel kind of odd.

To make a long story somewhat shorter (Too late!), she came when it was convenient to her (I seem to remember my mom was in the middle of home dialysis when she showed up), she bossed us around, threw away stuff that we valued because it looked like trash to her, put things away in places that we never found again, shamed us about the cleanliness of our house through her words and attitude, and by the time she left, we all felt terrible. Granted, it was nice to have a clean house, but the price was too high. I know I didn’t go to church the next Sunday, and for the rest of the time we went to that church, I avoided the woman. (She always made comments to my sister, who suffered from chronic asthma and coughs growing up, which she hated and eventually drove her away from attending church altogether).

The point of me telling this story in the beginning of this entry is to illustrate that it’s not just what you do for someone with chronic illness that matters, but the spirit and attitude that you bring to it matters just as much. I’ve had people come over and bust their ass for me in a way that I have been eternally grateful for; I’ve also had people do tiny things for me and then they bring it up every single time we hang out socially, making me feel like I’m an invalid who can barely wipe my own ass.

So this is where I give you the post I have been promising for some time, called “Strengths and Weaknesses”. The reason I call it thus is because after you decide that you really do want to be of help to someone with a chronic illness is to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. By offering to do something that is actually one of the sick person’s strengths, you invalidate their autonomy – when someone offers to help me out of a car, which I can do on my own, it illustrates to me that your internal image of me is of someone who can’t do that. In the same vein, teaching classes at events makes me feel like a human being; when someone tells me they didn’t or won’t book me because I get sick a lot, I understand their decision, but I would like to mention that I have canceled teaching events all of twice in the years I’ve been doing it, and that’s partially because teaching makes all of the time at home feeling like crap worth something. So canceling my teaching gig is not “helping”.

It’s important, therefore, to engage someone in a conversation before deciding how you wish to help them, or even just remind them that you’re a part of their “team”. There are lots of little things you can do – send a card, call and talk to them, bring over some food in a container you don’t want back, pray for them, have your religious group do a ritual for them or something similar. There’s a book someone bought for me (because I asked on Facebook), called “Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways To Encourage A Chronically Ill Friend” by Lisa J. Copen. It was definitely written for a Christian audience, as some of the “ways” are actually scriptures, and some of the other “ways” have scriptures in them, but there are some suggestions that are actually worthwhile, like:

21.Ask, “Do you have an errand I can run?” before coming over.

41. Accept that the chronic illness may not go away. If they’re accepting it, don’t tell them the illness is winning and they’re giving into it.

73. When they say, “I’m fine” [or my version, “Hanging in there.”], say, “No, I mean how are you really? I know what fine means.”

94. Respect their need for privacy and personal space. Don’t assume that they are lucky to have you as a friend and should always drop everything to accommodate your need to extend kindness.

163. Don’t let the fear of not knowing what to say keep you from being in touch.

228. Bring over a homemade dessert when you know they’re having company.

280. Recognize that what they could do yesterday may not be possible today. Don’t question that. Every day is different.

313. Realize that the person living with chronic illness and pain probably needs you much more than the one going through a short-lived crisis. Many people are probably ministering to the one in the much publicized crisis.

[I changed all the gendered pronouns to neutral ones. In the book, the author goes back and forth between he and she, although I think she uses she more often, and many of the suggestions assume that the person with the chronic illness is a woman, since the author was writing from her own experiences.]

So that’s a taste. The book might be disappointing to someone looking for 505 hands-on things they can do – many of them are more about the way you think, interact, or expect of someone with a chronic illness. And like I said, some of the ways are little more than scriptures, which isn’t so useful if you aren’t Christian. (I also found it offputting that the first five pages of the book are all accolades – I get it, lots of people like your book – there’s no reason other than ego to print that many, especially since there are more on the cover!)

Overall, I liked the book. It did have some solid suggestions of what someone who feels completely helpless or overwhelmed can do to help someone with a chronic illness out. It gives a range of things, from just ways of thinking or praying, to little hands-on things, to big projects like getting your friends to raise money to send your sick friend on a vacation. I don’t know that I would give it to friends; most of my friends aren’t Christian and might find the many scripture quotes repetitive and unhelpful. But if you can look past that, it’s a cheap little book you can pass on to others (or buy in bulk) when someone you know wishes they could help someone but doesn’t know how.

End of Part I.

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