Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 11 Jun 13 10:40
Inkwell.vue is honored to welcome Richard Smoley, author of _Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History_, for our latest author discussion. Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1956, Richard Smoley has had a lively interest in spiritual matters at least from the age of ten, when a great-aunt of his, a nun, took him aside and told him he was maybe thinking a little too much about religion. As an undergraduate, Smoley went to Harvard College, where he worked on the universitys venerable literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate, and edited an anthology entitled First Flowering: The Best of the Harvard Advocate: 1866-1976 (published by Addison-Wesley in 1977), which contained writings ranging from the early poetry of T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens to the lyrics of Lou Reeds Sweet Jane. After taking a bachelors degree magna cum laude in classics at Harvard in 1978, Smoley went on to the University of Oxford in the U.K., where he edited The Pelican, the magazine of Corpus Christi College. He took a second B.A. in the Honour School of Literae Humaniores (classics and philosophy) in 1980, and received his M.A. from Oxford in 1985. Probably the most important part of his stay at Oxford came from his contact with a small group that was studying the Kabbalah, one of the mainstays of the Western esoteric tradition. It was here that he was first introduced to many of the ideas he has discussed in his books and articles. After spending two years at Oxford, Smoley moved to San Francisco in 1980. During this time he also continued his spiritual investigations, working with teachings ranging from Tibetan Buddhism to A Course in Miracles. In 1986, Smoley started writing for a new magazine called Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. After four years of writing for Gnosis and a brief stint as managing editor, he came on board as editor in November 1990. In his eight years as editor of Gnosis, he put together issues of the magazine on subjects as diverse as dreams, prayer and meditation, and love. In 1998 Gnosis won Utne Readers award for best spiritual coverage. In May 1999, Smoleys book, Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions, coauthored with Jay Kinney, was published by Penguin Arkana, and was the subject of a discussion here at <inkwell.vue.58>. Leading the conversation is Linda Castellani, a member of the WELL for over twenty years, former cohost of the Mirrorshades (with Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky), Crafts, and Inkwell forums, and current host of the Miscellaneous forum, as well as an independent forum on the paranormal. She's a technical writer and consultant living in the Bay Area.
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 11 Jun 13 11:42
Thank you, Jon, and welcome Richard. My first question is about terminology. The title you chose for your book is "Supernatural." Do you think the terms "supernatural" and "paranormal" can be used interchangeably, or do you see a clear division between what each term represents? Recently, in an online discussion about a book, the person who posted about the book described it as being about the "paranormal," which piqued my interest right away. However, when I got the book, it was all about vampires and zombies and werewolves, none of which interest me, nor do they fall into the category of paranormal, in my opinion. So, what do you think? What are we talking about here, and what are we not talking about?
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Wed 12 Jun 13 14:32
I could launch into a discussion of these semantic nuances, but I have to say that in fact the book title was suggested by my editor at Tarcher--this happens fairly often in the book world, and I certainly didn't have any better alternatives. I don't as a matter of fact see any sharp or meaningful distinction between the two words. But to be concrete about what my book is about, it covers a range of topics, including some that are highly popular (The Da Vinci Code, Nostradamus, 2012, demons), others that are a little bit more esoteric (hidden masters, toxic prayer--can prayer be toxic?), as well as such things as A Course in Miracles and mind healing. I hope this helps!
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 12 Jun 13 15:08
And, let's not forget Kaballah, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Edgar Cayce, I Ching, consciousness, meditation, and magical traditions all within the first few pages of the first chapter! In the preface, you say that, "Underlying all these essays is woven a theme that, I believe, is the most important and sublime in all religious literature [...] But I don't believe that anyone can experience this awakening without being transformed by it forever. It is to point toward this awakening that this book is ultimately aimed." For those of our readers who don't have the book, could you say what that theme is? And, when writing essays about unknown histories, awakenings and transformations, is it possible to do so without also discussing religion?
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Thu 13 Jun 13 21:37
I'm wondering how this book fits in the pantheon of your other works. When getting ready for this topic, I wanted to put this book in the context of what you had written before. So I used my favorite method of divination, Google, found http://www.innerchristianity.com/ and its mention of your other works but not this one. Hence my question.
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Fri 14 Jun 13 14:02
Linda, I would answer your question in this way. Inside you there is something that sees, that says "I." It is not your body. It is not your thoughts and feelings, because, as is easy to discover from even a reasonably simple meditation exercise, it is possible to witness all these things as from a distance. So who or what is doing the observing? It can never be seen, because it is always that which sees. It is this "I" toward which I believe all true mystical teaching points (although this is not the final point by any means). I once made this point in a nursing home to an audience that consisted of people suffering from multiple sclerosis, a number of them barely able to move. At one point I said to them what I said above--there is something in you that says "I"--and I could see them nodding in agreement. As for religion, of course it's intimately tied with these topics, but since it is an enormous subject in its own right, I haven't focused on it in Supernatural. In my book Inner Christianity, for example, I try to outline the basic teachings of the esoteric Christian tradition as I understand it. Regarding the relation of this book to my other works, this one is to some degree more incidental--rather than discoursing on a single topic, it treats a lot of different topics, many of them of popular interest. In this way it might be more accessible than some of my other works, though I've tried to write them all as clearly as possible.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Fri 14 Jun 13 14:27
Richard, Back in the dark ages, 1993, you participated in a Gnosis conference on the Well, now archived as <gnosis.old.>. Back then, you asked a question to the participants about the value of and perhaps the down side of diversity in the spiritual and religious realms. From your experience since then and especially your latest book, how do you now feel about all the choices we have today and our ability to pick and choose between them? Or perhaps to find a syncretic blending of them?
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Sat 15 Jun 13 11:54
My views have changed since then (if I remember correctly, which I may not). If I recall, I was perhaps somewhat suspicious of what has since come to be called supermarket spirituality--the idea that you can pick and choose your religious beliefs to suit yourself. I now believe that supermarket spirituality, in this sense, is not only legitimate but necessary. For too long people have bought bills of goods, in spiritual teachings both conventional and alternative. One idea sounds good, so you are automatically obliged to take the rest, even if these other beliefs are suspect and implausible. So now I would say that in this individualistic age, we have the duty to ourselves to pick and choose--carefully and thoughtfully--our beliefs and practices. It may not be so in all ages, but it is in ours. Of course there is the retort that this becomes a license for anything. In terms of belief and practice, perhaps, but not in the way of ethics. As a matter just about everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike, is in agreement about the basic ethical tenets that people should live by. They may try to squirrel out of them, and, it is true, that sort of picking and choosing is dangerous. But by and large we know what the rules are. We just don't want to live by them.
Peter Meuleners (pjm) Sat 15 Jun 13 12:42
Good post. Thanks.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Sat 15 Jun 13 20:59
just wondering what you thought of the work of erik davis
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Sun 16 Jun 13 13:29
"Whether or not the Kali Yuga is about to end, we can bring the end of the reign of quantity a few steps closer by looking into ourselves and making sure that the values by which we guide our lives are more than merely economic ones." Yup. I am enjoying the read and don't really have any questions, but I believe you and I could agree that religion is both the cure and the cause of many of our problems. Even the quantitists believe just a little bit in whatever and that is just enough to fuel the kinds of mass hysteria we have seen in the markets and such. I mean, I was in San Francisco new year's eve 2000 when even non-believers halfway expected all the computers to go down. "Quantity" is the last harbor of the faithless. They simply can't see anything else.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 16 Jun 13 15:20
Kevin's comment slipped in as I was writing this. My comment refers to <loris>'s question about Erik Davis...And, speaking of which, in the chapter called Demons Among Us, you talk about the phone call you received from the woman in Australia when you were editor of Gnosis, that led you to give her a number "of a crisis line for spiritual emergencies..." Such a thing actually exists?
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Sun 16 Jun 13 18:11
Regarding Erik Davis, he is a good friend. I got to know him when he wrote for Gnosis in the '90s. I respect his work very much. He is definitely much more plugged into the techno/Burning Man world than I am, which would admittedly not be difficult. The Spiritual Emergency Network was, as I remember, the handiwork in part of Frances Vaughan, and it really did exist. It was based in Santa Cruz in those days (c.1995), but I don't think it exists anymore. Tantum religio potuit suadere malroum--"so much evil has religion encouraged"--as Lucretius famously put it. I often find myself wondering, for example, if taken in sum, the Catholic Church has done more good than harm or vice versa. I tend to believe that it has done more good, although I can easily see where someone could make the opposite argument. The hierarchy of course has long been a moral embarrassment, but on the other hand there are a lot of nuns and priests in the trenches doing vital work for people who would otherwise be neglected. Y2K. As a result of some strange circumstances (dinner with a friend and a lesbian friend of his and her girlfriend, the latter two of whom wanted to ring in the New Year without the rest of us), I found myself on the F train to Brooklyn at 12:00 midnight on January 1, 2000. I told myself, "I guess I must not be too worried about Y2K." Since it was early (for New Year's Eve), the subway was pretty empty and the few people who were on it were very friendly. FWIW, to use WELL speak.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Mon 17 Jun 13 11:43
> <richardsmoley> > The hierarchy of course has long been a moral > embarrassment, but on the other hand there are a lot of nuns and > priests in the trenches doing vital work for people who would otherwise > be neglected. I'm not a Catholic or even a Christian, but I've been inspired by the life of St. Francis. What you write about here was wonderfully illustrated by a symbolic scene in Zefireeli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" where St. Francis meets the Pope: http://vimeo.com/47132524 <krome> > "Whether or not the Kali Yuga is about to end, we can bring the end of > the reign of quantity a few steps closer by looking into ourselves and > making sure that the values by which we guide our lives are more than > merely economic ones." There is a common ground where people of good will meet no matter what their beliefs or lack of belief. It's important to keep that in mind when exploring the interesting differences between various belief systems.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 17 Jun 13 20:31
You've clearly spent some time with _A Course in Miracles_. What impact has the Course had on your thinking?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 18 Jun 13 09:46
And, could you please say more about what it is about the Course in Miracles that attracted you and kept your interest?
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 19 Jun 13 11:45
upcoming exhibit at the contemporary jewish museum in sf on the spiritual in modern art http://www.thecjm.org/on-view/upcoming/beyond-belief/about
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Fri 21 Jun 13 06:30
I've spent over 30 years working with A Course in Miracles. I became interested in it quite inadvertently. In 1980 I was flying out to move to San Francisco. I bought a copy of Psychology Today to read on the plane, and it had an article in it entitled "The Gospel According to Helen." It was about A Course in Miracles (Helen Schucman was the woman who channeled it, allegedly from Jesus Christ). I found the article interesting but didn't think much more about it. It was only several months later, when I was in a bad mood over a job that I didn't get, that I saw a used set of the Course in a bookstore. I bought it as a curiosity and took it home. I started reading the first volume, the Text, which did not make a great deal of sense to me. But the Workbook had some easy-to-do lessons, so I started with those. In the end I did the whole Workbook (365 lessons), and I found the Course to be a work of remarkable profundity. It is the only work of Christian theology that I have ever read that was completely logical and self-consistent (i.e., it did not invoke "mystery" or "the will of God" to weasel out of logical contradictions). The Course has been called the only sacred text whose native language is English, and I would be inclined to agree. It is certainly a work of great insight and transformative power. Does it do all that it says it will do? That is another matter. Since the Course is said to work to the extent that you change your mind, if it doesn't work that means you haven't changed your mind enough. At this point I'm inclined to regard it as an experiment by some higher being (Jesus or not; who can say?) to try to inject a new method of spiritual learning in the world. Like all experiments, it's an ongoing process, and has probably not been entirely successful. All that said, it's clear that enormous numbers of people, including me, have had their lives changed by this work.
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Fri 21 Jun 13 10:34
Enjoying the bits about Masonry and Rosicrucianism. I devoured Robert Anton Wilson's stuff when I was younger and most popular works(and even some not so popular like Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet which I loved) are chock full of varieties of hearsay and conjecture, it's good to get some straight information.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 21 Jun 13 11:07
I didn't realize that A Course in Miracles could be considered to be Christian theology. That puts a whole different light on it for me, since I'm not Christian. What intrigues me about your experience is how it came to you at the right time. I appreciate that kind of synchronicity, and I always pay attention to it. In my case, after having the book on the shelf for years, unread, The Teachings of Don Juan jumped off my bookshelf and landed at my feet. I ended up reading every book by Carlos Casteneda that had been published at that time. That wasn't my first foray into the world of alternate realities, but it was the most fascinating. Have you read Carlos Casteneda's books, and if you have, what are your thoughts on his writings?
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Fri 21 Jun 13 11:42
> The Course has been called the only sacred text whose native language > is English I don't mean to disparage the value you find in that path, but I'm going to nit pick a bit: The writings of Meher Baba such as God Speaks and the Discourses are in English. Depending on the criteria you use for a sacred text, the Anonymous "12 steps" books could be considered sacred texts. The book of Mormon is another.
Richard Smoley (richardsmoley) Fri 21 Jun 13 12:52
Of course, the Book of Mormon, if you believe Joseph Smith, was not originally written in English but in "reformed Egyptian." Carlos Castaneda: I liked the first book, but was never drawn enough into it to want to read the others. But to give you some, as it were, inside information. A friend of mine is the ex-wife of the late spiritual and temporal head of the Yaqui nation. So it was natural to ask her about all that. The only things she said were: (1) at one point she had lived in a house belonging to don Juan Matus and (2) the first book was reasonably authentic but the others were largely fiction. FWIW--do they still say that on the WELL?
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 21 Jun 13 13:53
Yes, we do! Largely fiction!! We also say, WTF! I am so disappointed. If he was an anthropologist, why would he do that? I liked the following quote from the wikipedia article: Castaneda was the subject of a cover article in the March 5, 1973 issue of Time. The article described him as "an enigma wrapped in a mystery." When confronted by correspondent Sandra Burton about discrepancies in his personal history, Castaneda responded by saying: "To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics...is like using science to validate sorcery. It robs the world of its magic and makes milestones out of us all". The interviewer wrote that "Castaneda makes the reader experience the pressure of mysterious winds and the shiver of leaves at twilight, the hunter's peculiar alertness to sound and smell, the rock-bottom scrubbiness of Indian life, the raw fragrance of tequila and the vile, fibrous taste of peyote, the dust in the car, and the loft of a crow's flight. It is a superbly concrete setting, dense with animistic meaning. This is just as well, in view of the utter weirdness of the events that happen in it." Following that interview, Castaneda retired from public view. So, let's change the subject. Let's talk about theosophy, something I know virtually nothing about, although I've heard the names Rudolf Steiner and Blavatsky mentioned in conjunction with the subject, and I know you talk about it in your book. It sounds complicated and contentious. Could you summarize the basic philosophy of the theosophists, and say something about the various players involved? Was theosophy something that people were interested in during the early 20th century, but not so much now?
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Fri 21 Jun 13 14:09
FWIW & WTF served course not just WELLisms these days. JADP.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Fri 21 Jun 13 14:33
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Fri 21 Jun 13 17:29
"If he was an anthropologist, why would he do that?" Money changes everything. Adulation, too.
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