Monday, 31 December 2007

Status update for end of 2007

On the last day of 2007 - what's happening for me?

I said back in March that I planned to do these status updates "from time to time" - I'm glad I didn't set a specific time period. This is my second update.

Writing: City of Masks is in its final stages of being (self)-published. I'm gearing up to do a big promotion with press releases and so forth.

I'm having some fun putting together a podcast of myself reading it - each small section of the book will be an episode. Because it's told in journal entries (and other documents), and the first one is dated "the sixth of the first month", I'm going to try to release all the podcasts on the correct dates as per the timeline of the book. The first one is recorded and I plan to record the second later today. I'm using incidental music from Jon Sayles, a classical guitarist and Renaissance music enthusiast who loves it so much that he gives it away for anyone to use for any purpose. I emailed him and he's just as pleased as I am that I'll be using it, which is very cool.

The Journey in Four Directions didn't go anywhere this year. It's reaching the point where I feel the need to rewrite or at least redraft it, and I'm thinking of doing that by blogging bits here, once City of Masks is less central to my attention.

I haven't done any more substantial writing this year - just the blog, and hypnotherapy scripts. Next year, more writing.

Spiritual practice: my on-again, off-again relationship with centering prayer is off again. I just don't seem to stick to it if any kind of disruption comes along - this time it was being unwell for most of December (persistent cough, which has pretty much gone now). I think I may need to do myself a hypnotherapy script on creating a disciplined practice.

Exercise: I've started using the crosstrainer we bought for Erin to help with her fitness programme, so that she doesn't need to go to the gym after work and then get stuck in traffic (and for after her gym membership finishes). She's getting fit for ankle surgery. I'm getting fit for general life improvement. I'm only doing five minutes at a time but I'm getting faster and going further in that five minutes.

Tomorrow, Julianne and Mark M. are coming round and we're going tramping in the Waitakeres, something I've wanted to get back into for a while.

Hypno NZ: I'd hoped to have my online shop up and running by now, but there aren't yet any completed recording sets to put in it. Because of the cough and general voice roughness, I haven't recorded many scripts yet, though I've written several that are waiting for recording time. One this afternoon is a possibility.

Nobody has used the online booking form to book an appointment, and only one person has used the "tell me about yourself and your issue" feature (and never replied when I contacted her). Sigh.

I've been getting about one client a week since taking out an ad in the local paper. There's another, larger ad in a different free newspaper coming out in a couple of weeks; I'm going to try to "out" myself to my new boss before it comes out because someone at work is sure to see it. (So far there's never been a good time to mention at work that I'm developing a hypnotherapy practice on the side.) I think Max will be cool with it, as long as my work isn't compromised.

The therapy room is pretty much fully set up now, except I never did get a larger rug for the floor; it has two comfortable chairs, a set of drawers, a little table for my laptop, and a plant on a stand. I have all my diplomas and so forth nicely framed in the entryway.

Study: I'm in the process of enrolling for a Certificate in Health Science from Massey, which I'll be studying extramurally. It's the first step towards a bachelor's degree in health science, which could well lead to a Master's (endorsed in psychology) - though that would be about 10 years away unless I go full-time for a while, which isn't likely.

I was looking for a course where I could study anatomy, physiology, body systems in sickness and in health, nutrition, cognitive science and so forth, so that I can fill out my hypnotherapy skills with knowledge of the human mind-body system and basically help my clients more effectively. There are several around that are for naturopaths and medical herbalists and the like, but they all include things like iridology and homeopathy which I consider pseudoscience. I finally thought of checking Massey - their course hadn't come up on any of the Google searches I did, they need to work on that. It's pretty much exactly what I was looking for, from a reputable research-based university that's part of the NZ government's education system, at about the same cost as the dodgy ones.

I will have to take a couple of compulsory courses which sound fairly uninteresting and not all that useful, but they may have redeeming features that don't come through from the course descriptions. My current planned curriculum also doesn't quite give me a major in psych for the bachelor's degree, which would mean I'd have to make a case to get into the master's programme, but - cross bridge when come to. By the time I get to that point, if I even do, they may have changed the degree regulations anyway.

So, 2007 was kind of a ramp-up year. I'm looking forward to lots going on in 2008.

Friday, 21 December 2007

New novel idea

I might have known that once I got the previous novel all-but-published, the next one would pop its head up.

Here are my thoughts so far.

There are seven main characters. I think this one will probably more third-person, although rotating first-person might be interesting - hard to do, though. It's set in a kind of eighteenth-century Praguish place, to the extent that City of Masks was set in early Renaissance Venice (i.e. it has the general atmosphere but not the historically solid detail).

THE MUSICIAN feels like he's two people; a graceful, expressive master when he plays or composes, and a stammering, stumbling, almost incoherent idiot the rest of the time.

THE POET is, by contrast, not short of words, in fact he never shuts up. But what he can never find a way to express is the sense he has of something essential missing or lost.

THE PAINTER pays fierce attention to the world as an object, then vigorously depicts it, but seems almost blind to himself - and to the world as something he can interact with.

THE MODEL, the painter's mistress, is attempting to herd the abovementioned cats, with some limited success. She at least manages to make sure that they eat and sleep most days, and that many of the bills get paid almost on time. None of the artists notice this particularly.

THE MYSTIC is a herbalist, of uncertain age, who owns the house in which he, the three artists and the model live. He seldom speaks but is always worth listening to, and spends much of his time, when not making and dispensing remedies or meditating, on reading books with words in the titles that even the poet doesn't recognize. The books line the halls and other public spaces of the house; only the bedrooms of the three artists are free from them. He tries to live as the inheritor of the traditions described in the books, the previous living practitioners of which have all died years ago.

The mystic suggests, surprising everyone, that the poet and the musician might find resolution for their ills of the soul if they write an opera together, and agrees to tell seven stories over seven nights, from which they can select one as the story of the opera. The painter offers to design the sets.

THE FINANCIER is one of the painter's subjects, who agrees to be the patron of the opera. His money is inherited and his relationship with it is a difficult one, particularly as he suspects it wasn't earned entirely honestly.

THE DIVA is a beautiful young woman of peasant origins, hired to play the leading female role in the opera. The musician and the poet immediately fall in love with her, eliciting their finest work. However, at first unbeknown to them, she begins a liaison with the financier. The model befriends her, and together they... I'm not sure what yet. The mystic figures in it somehow.

Over the course of the novel, each person, without realizing it, chooses a story to live out from the seven told by the mystic, and their redemption is shaped accordingly.

Working title is Shadow Play, though I've also considered Shadow Work.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Climate change - action at last

We can all rest easier after a triumphant conclusion to the Bali conference on climate change.

The world's leaders, the "international community", have boldly compromised, firmly softened their stances, and decisively set a deadline for attempting to agree on some possible targets, maybe.

When your house or mine is destroyed by wild weather, we can at least be confident that our leaders are doing everything they can and treating this issue with the urgency it deserves.

What this means, of course, is that it's up to us to act sensibly in the absence of clear government leadership (from most of the world's governments; not necessarily NZ's).

Friday, 14 December 2007

City of Masks proof

The City of Masks proof arrived from CreateSpace just now - impressive, considering that it was shipped on Tuesday (and I ordered it on Monday). Especially impressive this close to Christmas.

The cover looks great, title, cover illo, C-Side Media logo, even the spine text is correctly aligned, despite CreateSpace's dire warnings about the risks of putting text on the spine of a book under 130 pages (it's 128).

However, something's gone wrong with the ligatures in the interior copy, and the letter combination "fi" has dropped out almost everywhere it occurs (also fl, all apostrophes, and probably some others). It looks fine in the PDF I have here. I've just sent a support request; hopefully they can help me out.

I was going to do another proof in any case, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm now planning to dual-publish at CreateSpace and Lulu. Lulu has much better pricing once you start buying in bulk, but getting distribution through Amazon with Lulu is relatively complicated, costs extra, and has certain limitations, so publishing through both at once makes sense. Unfortunately, when I was doing the original CreateSpace setup I picked the size 8.5 x 5.5 inches, completely arbitrarily - and Lulu doesn't print in that size. They both do 9 x 6, which just involves putting an extra quarter-inch all the way around the pages, so I should be able to do that without too many issues. (EDIT: No, I can't. CreateSpace doesn't let you change your mind about the trim size after you've ordered the first proof. Damn!)

The other reason I need to revise it is that I put a URL on the cover and in the front matter for a Wordpress blog, before I'd thoroughly investigated the functionality available at I was relying on a description I'd read that said "Wordpress can do such-and-such", without realizing that while Wordpress the application can do a great many things when hosted on your own site, Wordpress the site is very sandboxed and paranoid and will let you do hardly any of them. In particular, you can't put HTML in your Wordpress blog which includes a form, so I can't include a signup form for my mailing list on the blog. That's a dealbreaker for me; people are much more likely, in my opinion, to sign up from a simple form than they are from just a link. So I'm going to be using as my promotional blog for the book.

I'm planning to record myself reading the book and release it as a series of podcasts, then sell it as an audiobook. I may even, if I get myself organized, release the podcasts on the corresponding dates to the dates in Gregorius's journal (most of the book is told through journal entries). That would be kind of fun, and would give me a deadline.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Fenimore Cooper the Postmodern Novelist

I've just been reading a collection of short works by Mark Twain, and have discovered conclusive proof that Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer etc.) was a postmodern novelist far ahead of his time.

The Twain piece is called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". It begins with quotes from two professors of English literature praising Cooper, which is a fairly good start on being a postmodern novelist. But the real proof is in what follows. This is what Twain says, with tedious repetition removed:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. That the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. That the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. That the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. That when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. That when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. That when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.

8. That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. [This is a bit obscure; what Twain apparently means, judging from his later examples, is that some such label should not be used to justify any ridiculous ability or achievement that enters the author's head for the characters to possess.]

9. That the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. That the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. That the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Any novel that violates all eighteen of those rules is clearly a postmodern masterpiece.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

City of Masks about to be published at last

I finally decided to stop waiting until I was happy with the game for City of Masks and just publish the novel without it.

I'm going through CreateSpace, since that gets me straight into Amazon (who own CreateSpace). So far it seems pretty straightforward.

I've used LyX for my typesetting, which was somewhat frustrating for a while but I finally figured out how to get it doing what I wanted. It's one of those programs that has two levels: Incredibly basic and very, very technical. I managed not to stray too far into the very, very technical side but it did take me some messing about. I'll be able to use it much faster next time.

I did the cover in Inkscape, because I find the Gimp totally unintuitive; I always end up frustrated whenever I try to use it. I should probably download GimpShop, which skins the Gimp to look like Photoshop. Not that I've used Photoshop for years, but it may be an easier interface to work with.

The cover illustration of the mask comes from an Italian artist, appropriately enough, at DeviantArt ( She very kindly let me use it for free with acknowledgement.

So my total outlay for getting my book into print (and distribution) will be $5.71 USD plus shipping, for the proof to be printed and sent to me for approval. Amazing.

Publishing certainly has changed since I were a lad.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Meditations on the Tarot: The Chariot

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I've got behind on my blogging with Meditations on the Tarot; I've read up to partway through The Hermit. While my voice is out of commission for doing recordings (I've got a persistent dry cough, and it's turned my voice all husky), I thought I'd catch up a little.

The Chariot, says the Unknown Friend, represents both the person who has triumphed over the three temptations and remained faithful to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and also the fourth temptation: to act in one's own name, to consider oneself a master rather than a servant.

The Chariot represents the person who is not moved by the three temptations, but instead is able to set forces in motion. The UF says:
That which is above being as that which is below, renunciation below sets in motion forces of accomplishment above and the renunciation of that which is above sets in motion forces of accomplishment below.
(Which seems to have a contradiction in it, to me, but never mind.)

So this, he says, is one of the laws of sacred magic: If you desire something and then renounce it, in line with the three sacred vows, the result is what the Gospels call a "reward in heaven". This is why, when the Son of Man had faced the three temptations and triumphed, "angels came and ministered to him".

Because the Chariot is the seventh arcanum, the UF links it to the seven archetypal miracles of John's gospel (water to wine, the healing of the nobleman's son, the paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, the feeding of the 5000, walking on the water, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus) and the seven aspects of the Master's Name: "I am the true vine," "I am the way, the truth and the life," "I am the door," "I am the bread of life," "I am the good shepherd," "I am the light of the world," and "I am the resurrection and the life." In these, he revealed the glory of God.

However, there is also a mastership which reveals one's own glory, in which one comes in one's own name, and this is a serious spiritual danger. It is a "mystical megalomania", says the UF. It's not only what John Cassian discussed (as per A Mind at Peace) as "pride" and "vainglory"; it's more serious than that. Jung called it "inflation": exaggerated importance attached to oneself (which gives one a task to work on oneself), exaggerated superiority over others (which is a trial to be overcome), tending to obsession and finally megalomania (which is a catastrophe).

Jung's individuation is characterized by the creation of a new centre of the personality, in which the unconscious is being transformed into consciousness (the true self, second body etc. which the theosophers and Jacob Needleman and Cynthia Bourgeault talk about). This occurs by establishing a collaboration between conscious and unconscious, which occurs in the realm of symbol and through the awakening of the archetypes. The danger is that one may come to identify one's consciousness or ego with the archetype, for example, with the hero. This leads to inflation (or to negative inflation, where one is always unable to measure up and thus is a suffering hero). In inflation, a consciousness of superiority masks an unconscious inferiority, and in negative inflation vice versa. The initiation known as individuation involves transcending this identification of the archetype and the ego and a shifting of the centre of personality from the ego to the self.

This is the danger that attends a person seeking depth, something that the monastic orders are well aware of (hence their focus on genuine humility, which is neither inflationary nor deflationary but a reminder of the monk's finitude before God). The UF considers this a far greater danger than black magic or madness in the pursuit of occult or esoteric practice. The three stages he has noted repeatedly in his acquaintances are, first, self-assurance and informality in speaking of "higher and sacred things"; then, "knowing better" and "knowing all", the attitude of a master towards everyone; and finally, considering oneself infallible.

The monastic solution, mentioned by Mary Margaret Funk in A Mind at Peace and recommended also by the UF as the only solution he is aware of, is "ora et labora" - prayer and work. He says:
It is necessary to worship what is above us and it is necessary to participate in human effort in the domain of objective facts in order to be able to hold in check the illusions concerning what one is and what one is capable of.
This is to hold it in check; to actually overcome it, he says, one must have the experience of "concretely meeting" a being higher than oneself. "Authentic experience of the Divine makes one humble; he who is not humble has not had authentic experience of the Divine."

So the Charioteer in the sense of a warning is the megalomaniac with his false triumph, and the canopy separates him from God; but in the sense of an ideal, the Charioteer is the one who has become his or her own master, who has mastered himself or herself, in the sense of overcoming the three temptations and also the fourth, which is pride. In this case, the canopy is his awareness of not being God.

The breastplate is there to keep the Charioteer sane in the intoxicating mystical experience of union with Nature; the crown is to keep him sane in the sober mystical experience of union with the transcendental Self; and the canopy is to keep him sane in the third mystical experience, both intoxicating and sobering, of union with God. He does not lose himself in nature, does not lose God in experiencing his higher Self, and does not lose nature or the world in experiencing the love of God. He is a master not because he is "over" all the forces of the world but because in him all the forces are in balance and equilibrium (or health). In particular, he has the astral body, composed of the forces of the seven planets, in balance - he has broken what the theosophers refer to as the "astral shell", where one's planetary influences dominate one. To put it another way, he has transcended his own personality and balanced its powerful tendencies by gaining integration within the Self.

And the following arcanum, Justice, is specifically the arcanum of this balance.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Technology Disappointment

I've been waiting nearly three weeks for my Griffin iMic to arrive - I thought from Australia, since I bought it on eBay Australia, but it turns out that the company is American and it shipped from Germany.

It finally got here yesterday, and I plugged it in today to try it out - and was bitterly disappointed. The iMic is basically an analog-to-digital converter, meaning that it takes the analog input of a microphone (or tape deck, record player etc.) and converts it to a digital signal which goes into the computer via a USB port.

The idea is that this gives a cleaner input signal with less noise. If you plug your microphone into the microphone port on your computer, it's going through an analog to digital converter in your soundcard, which is sitting there among all the other computer components picking up noise from them. Having an external ADC is supposed to remove that problem, meaning nice clean sound input.

Not in this case, though. Anything I run through the iMic sounds like there's a jackhammer working in the background. It's far, far noisier than when I just go through the sound card.

There's nothing in the FAQ on Griffin's site. I've emailed the company I bought it from to see if they can suggest anything, but I very much fear I've got a faulty unit and will have to ship it back to them, probably at my cost, and wait weeks for a replacement.

I've been waiting for this gear so that I could start making good professional recordings to sell on my website. I may just start recording anyway, since I have a better microphone now (an Audio Technica ATR35s, which is about the cheapest mic AudioTechnica make but still a very good one).

The iMic came with a trial version of GoldWave recording software, which has several features I've been missing in Audacity (parametric EQ and the ability to chain effects together in a kind of macro, plus removal of long silences - since I pause a lot when I'm recording, that's useful). So I'm going to give that a whirl and see if the relatively small amount of noise I get off the ATR35s can be adequately dealt with in software. If so, I may just ask for a refund on the iMic.

UPDATE: Yes, I can pretty much cut all the noise out using GoldWave. But I just tried the iMic again and the guy with the pneumatic drill is gone as mysteriously as he appeared. (Probably noise from the hard drive being picked up by the USB port for some reason.) However, the input is very quiet and the output keeps muting itself for some reason - so we're not out of the woods yet. The input is clean, no noise, but not very much signal either.

UPDATE 2 (15/11): I've been emailing back and forth today with Griffin tech support, and they've offered to ship me a new unit, which is very good after-sales support (and I told them so). They've taken a lot of time to understand the issue and suggested some sensible tests. It appears that they think the unit is faulty.

Further bulletins as events warrant - but even if it turns out that my microphone and the iMic just aren't meant to work together, I'm a happy customer in a service sense.

UPDATE 3 (20/11): The new unit arrived this morning, but, sadly, is no better. Actually it's a little worse, it introduces an annoying high-pitched hum into the audio, but you can really only hear that when you amplify the sound - it's just as quiet as the old unit. I made a demo of the sound through the sound card, the old unit, and the new unit. (The old one is silver; the new one is their version 2 product, which is white, smaller, and has a label on the "mic/line" switch.)

I tested with three different microphones in four different USB ports on two different laptops; the only thing which makes a difference is whether I record via the laptop's built-in soundcard (normal volume) or the iMic (unacceptably quiet volume).

My plan at the moment is to pay them for it and sell them both on TradeMe, since it seems they're not defective units as such, they're just no good for what I wanted them for. (Update: They refused my offer of payment.)

Back to recording through the soundcard and filtering out the hiss in software. (When I amplify the sound recorded through the iMic, I can hear just as much hiss as when I record directly through the soundcard.)

Technology problems like this are my least favourite thing to deal with. At least their customer service was good, though.

Monday, 12 November 2007

What I've been reading

I haven't posted for a while, so here's an update on what I've been reading.

I have about three more letters from Meditations on the Tarot to blog about, but they take a little while, so I'm waiting until I'm finished my online shop for (That's what I've been working on in my spare time lately.)

While we were in LA I bought several books at Brand Books, an excellent little second-hand bookshop in Glenfield. One of them was New Techniques in Behavior Therapy and Hypnosis: Including Advanced Techniques in Sex Therapy by Arreed F. Barabasz, written while he was lecturing at Canterbury University (30 years ago, so the "new" isn't applicable any more). There's some good stuff on migraine which I'll make use of (basically you teach people to warm their hands, since that shifts blood flow away from the head, and too much blood flow in the head is part of the problem). There are also some useful ideas on systematic desensitization for phobias. The sex therapy material is mostly either things I already knew or things that would require me to be a doctor to put into practice, but there's also a section on sleep disorders with one or two useful points.

I'm partway through John Crowley's LITTLE, BIG; I've kind of got bogged down in the tragic story of Auberon and Sylvie. It's one of those books that's really well written but I don't necessarily enjoy all of. I've read it before; I don't remember whether I finished it then or not. Possibly not, since all I can recall is the very early scene where Smoky and Daily Alice go off on their honeymoon walking trip. I'd forgotten how much sex it has in it, and forgotten that there were drugs in it at all (no rock-and-roll, though). I've been stalled on it for a while, reading other things, but I do intend to finish.

A book that does include rock-and-roll is Russ Haines' Digital Audio: Record | Rip | Edit | Mix | Master | Burn | Stream, which although it was published in 2001 is still a very valuable resource, because unlike so many technical books it gives underlying principles, not specifics of using rapidly outdated tools. In fact, he emphasizes that the (software) tools you use don't particularly matter; there are several of them, find one you like and learn to use it well, they're much of a muchness as far as the basics are concerned. I want to summarize this one fully from the perspective of voice recording and post the results to my hypnotherapy site (since this is why I got it from the library: to learn how to make better recordings that I can sell in my new online shop). I'm waiting for a device he recommends, an analog-to-digital converter, to reach me from Australia, and it's taking forever. (Australia Post were slow when I lived there 17 years ago, and apparently are still slow. You'd think that for $9 they'd be able to move a small package 1200km in less than two weeks.) Once I have that I'll go through the book again.

On the spiritual side, two things. I've finally got round to Sister Mary Margaret Funk's A Mind at Peace, which I must have had in the "to-read" queue for over a year. It summarizes the teaching of John Cassian, who collected a lot of sayings from the Desert Fathers in the 5th century, on meditation and dealing with the "eight thoughts": food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia (spiritual weariness), vainglory and pride. Andrew has been using it in his Centering Prayer workshops for a while now. The writing itself is not tremendously well organized and is quite poorly edited, but the ideas are useful. I just finished the Sex chapter this morning, and already the book is making a difference. The basic principle, as with Centering Prayer, is to be aware of the eight thoughts (thus making them mindful rather than mindless), and then "renounce" them, or as Centering Prayer more helpfully says, let them go, so that they don't carry you where you don't want to go. It has a handy appendix with a number of different practices listed and briefly explained.

And speaking of Centering Prayer, Andrew lent me his copy of Love Is Stronger Than Death: The Mystical Union of Two Souls by Cynthia Bourgeault last week. I didn't quite finish it before I had to pass it on to Julianne, but it's interesting. We've been reading her books in reverse order, first Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, which borders on being orthodox (albeit in a slightly unusual mode), then The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, which is definitely esoteric, and now this, her first book, which is very unusual indeed. She believes (and may be correct in believing, I'm not in a position to say) that she still has a powerful, living connection with her late teacher, a hermit monk with whom she shared a (non-physical) love affair which surprised both of them. Together they formed a "second body" which, she claims, persisted and continues to develop after his death.

Finally, I'm currently reading, and very much enjoying, Charles Stross's Glasshouse. Damn, this thing is good. Future society, nanoassemblers, ability to upload yourself, change your body, and - this is important - change your mental "state vector", i.e. the contents and pattern of your mind. Someone infected all the assemblers with the Curious Yellow information virus, which censored everyone's memories of the past as they went through the assemblers (to change bodies, heal, de-age or whatever) and made them vectors of the virus to the next assembler. A major war was fought to destroy Curious Yellow and "clean" those affected. During this war, people did terrible things, some of which they then had memory surgery to forget about. One such is the protagonist, who along with others in a similar situation volunteers for a sociological experiment, a recreation of the long-gone society of the late 20th/early 21st century, as best it can be reconstructed from fragmentary records - which is kind of 1950s suburbia (with strongly defined gender roles) plus a mixture of technologies from various eras. All, though, is not as it seems...

For its handling of gender alone, this novel deserves an award (in fact, I just took a moment to nominate it for the James Tiptree, Jr Award, and I'll be surprised if I'm the first to do so). (EDIT: I wasn't.) But it's also incredibly well written and gripping, real mind-expanding "what if" science fiction. Stross is finally learning to keep his tremendous intellect and immense knowledge in the background, dialled down to a level where lesser beings can still understand - something like what Connie Willis and Neal Stephenson have learned to do - and it makes it even better than his earlier books, because for almost all of the time I know what the hell he's talking about. It has the disturbing presence and depth of Neil Gaiman, than which I have no higher praise to offer.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Prayer bones

Just came across this image in the "historical anatomies" collection of the US National Library of Medicine:

I don't know what I'd use it for, but it cries out to be used for something.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Intermediate Christianity

Before I return Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity to Julianne, I want to note down the things that struck me in it, particularly "intermediate Christianity".

Intermediate Christianity isn't in the sense of "basic, intermediate, advanced" (though that works too), but more in the sense of a Christianity that's intermediate between the external, "assent to propositions + good behaviour" Christianity and the full-on mystical union with God. It has a more modest aim than the latter; it aims to bring into being the soul.

Needleman's argument (derived from his mysterious Father Sylvan) is that what we usually tend to call "soul" is actually just thought and emotion at the external, small-s-self, egoic level. Actual soul is much more; it involves a return to authentic being which reflects the original paradisal innocence (which, as someone who aspires to be the Innocent Man, is something I'm interested in). This authentic being is not the being constructed for us by our various interactions with the world; it's the "face you had before you were born" of Zen. For most people, it isn't simply hidden, Father Sylvan claims; actually, it doesn't even exist. It only comes to exist when we let go of the external thoughts and emotions that we think of as our "self". When we do so, we encounter, not different thoughts and emotions, but a new level of knowing and a new level of feeling that is quite unlike the former level.

"Intermediate Christianity" also points to the soul as the aspect of ourselves that is able to relate both to the world and to God, paying attention to both - and "attention" is a key word. Here he brings in centering prayer specifically - he was among the early discoverers of what Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington were up to (the book is originally from the 1980s).

The soul, too, is formed, is present, in the moment of self-questioning, before our genuine response to anything turns into a programmed reaction, and before we resolve the paradoxes. Retaining the energy of this moment of questioning within ourselves, rather than allowing it to disperse by being absorbed in the usual thoughts and emotions, we can come to awareness of the subtler energies within ourselves which form, eventually, the soul.

We have been carrying on all this time as if the Bible addressed itself to people at the level we are at, the external level of ordinary thoughts and emotions, and told them to be at the level of saints. No wonder we couldn't do it. No, says Father Sylvan (echoing Gurdjieff); it addresses itself to intermediate Christians, to people who have a genuine existence and a real soul, who are able to love others as they love themselves because they have an authentic self to love.

And finally, Needleman offers reflections on what it means to "love" our neighbour. Just to help them in ways that are beneficial to them? This is a weak definition of love; love is not less than this but surely it is more than this. "To love my neighbour is to assist the arising and the unfolding in him of that which can harmonize the real elements of his nature" - and we can't do this for others until we have done it for ourselves. (As the great Hasidic teacher said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?")

I'll close with personal responses to two quotes from Father Sylvan.

"The intellect cannot be abandoned until it knows why it must be abandoned and theoretically agree to it." - p. 207
I think this has been a part of my struggle with Centering Prayer (which I still don't practice regularly and consistently). I find it difficult to let go; I need to have reasons why it's a good idea (though I now have a great many).

One of the reasons that "intermediate Christianity" appeals to me as a concept is that I don't feel ready for the higher kind, the mysticism of a Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross that gives up all for the beloved. It doesn't reflect well on me, but it's true: I just don't love God that much, not yet, anyway. Seeking to be the Innocent Man, to have a genuine existence, to form a soul? That I can aspire to.

" order to attain to the immediate you must begin by setting aside the language of the Christian religion." - p. 208

I've been trying to read some of the writings of the theosophers, Jacob Boehme and co., and my problem is that although (I'm reliably informed) what they're expressing is not just the same old-time religion that I strove so earnestly in when I was young and foolish, their language is the language of that religion, and it's a barrier for me; I keep being emotionally ejected into the assumption that the language is empty, which for them it wasn't, but for me, now, it is. So approaching things a bit differently - whether via Buddhist language, or Meditations on the Tarot, or Kabbalah, or however - is helping me to, paradoxically, get back to Christianity in a way that things phrased as Christianity don't. Again, I'm not claiming that I don't have issues here; clearly I do. But given that I do, the fact that I can find a way of working around them is, I think, the important fact.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Meditations on the Tarot: The Lover

Although I haven't been reading Meditations on the Tarot lately, I am one chapter behind on my blogging, so this is me catching up.

The card which the Unknown Friend calls The Lover is usually referred to as The Lovers. In the Marseilles Tarot (though not in Rider-Waite), there is a third figure of a temptress besides the male and female couple and the Cupid figure, and the UF refers this to the temptress of Proverbs chapter 7, while the pure bride is Wisdom of Proverbs 8.

"The central theme of the sixth Arcanum is therefore that of the vow of chastity", and it summarizes the three vows in opposition to the three temptations, those of Christ in the wilderness. The vows and temptations total six, the number of the card, linked to the symbol of the hexagram or Solomon's Seal.

The three vows hark back to Paradise, where man was united with God in obedience, with the world in poverty (that is, possession of everything while laying hold of nothing in particular), and with his companion in chastity, total communion and wholeness in love, living unity.

The problem of love of one's neighbour is this: "Rather than knowing that they really exist and that they are as much alive as we ourselves, it nevertheless appears to us that they have a less real existence and that they are less living than we ourselves... Our thoughts tell us that this is an illusion... all the same we feel ourselves at the centre of reality, and we feel other beings to be removed from this centre... Now, to feel something as real in the measure of its full reality is to love."

The UF identifies two approaches to overcoming the illusion that "I am living while you are a shadow". The first, the Eastern method, is to extend indifference, shadowness, also to oneself. But the other method is to extend the love that one has for oneself to other beings, so that one regards both as equally living. To begin, one must love the closest person, one's neighbour.

This is the reverse of Freudianism (as Needleman also points out). Freud sees sexual desire as the basis of all human psychological activity, but sexual desire is only one, separated portion of the totality of love. It is the wholeness of love that is chastity.

Where Needleman goes with this is that problems develop when self-knowledge becomes less interesting than sexual fulfilment. And indeed, the UF next talks about self-knowledge. He sees the biblical account of Eden as describing the essential foundation of our human being, in symbolic language. Through "enstasy", descent into one's own foundational depths, one experiences the image and likeness of God spoken of in Genesis, by the means of "the sense of spiritual touch". This is the first initiatory experience.

The second is through the sense of spiritual hearing, and is by ecstasy - with reference to Pythagoras and his ideas of religious ecstasy, the music of the spheres, and cosmology. He concludes, "Ecstasy to the heights beyond oneself and enstasy into the depths within oneself lead to knowledge of the same fundamental truth. Christian esotericism unites these two methods of initiation." He gives the Gospel of John as an example of this combination of height and depth, the macrocosmic solar sphere and the microcosmic solar layer, the cosmic heart and the human heart. And Paradise is a name for both of these, the realm of beginnings and principles and initiation.

Now, the three temptations. The first is that of power, listening to the voice of the Serpent who says "You shall be like God"; the autonomy of consciousness which now knows good and evil for itself, instead of knowing all things through God; which now knows itself naked (separate from God). It is a refusal of obedience because it puts the voice of the serpent (or the self) on the same level as the voice of God, which said not to eat of the tree, and obedience is based on submission to what is highest. It is doubt, the entry of an alternative to listening to God.

The second temptation is to look at the tree and prepare to have experience, to experiment and act for oneself in order to dispel the doubt, which is the beginning of greed and the loss of poverty.

Finally, Eve took of the fruit (plunging into experience) and ate, and gave some to her husband (involving the other), thus losing chastity. Rather than waiting for the gracious revelation from God, she took. (I have to admit I don't totally follow the connection to chastity, and I think he's just completing the pattern as best he can here.)

The UF then has a long digression on grace, which I won't go into here. Likewise his long digression on egregores, which are phantoms, emergent forces or artificial beings engendered by collective consciousness (such as political ideologies), rather than realities revealed from God on high. He resumes on page 140 with a description of the law of God as grace and the law of the serpent as "the triad of the will to power, the 'groping trial' and the transformation of that which is gross into that which is subtle."

He then speaks of the three temptations of Christ. Hunger is the experience of poverty, and the temptation to transform the lower (stones) into the higher (bread), rather than taking life from on high. The temptation to throw himself down from the temple is the temptation of the "groping trial", whereupon he expresses some peculiar views on biological evolution (he sees it as authored and directed by the serpent, which seems odd). This is the temptation of chastity (again, I don't totally follow this).

The temptation of the kingdoms of the world is, of course, the temptation of power and directed against obedience.

Basically, what the UF seems to be getting at here is that there are two ways: we can begin with the lower, with ourselves, with what is emergent, and attempt to build it up to something great (the modern ideas of evolution and progress), or we can ask and allow God to send grace down to us.

I remember after reading part of this over breakfast being struck by the consonance with my little daily liturgy which I say in the shower:

I want to listen, to what is highest and best, to all people, to everything that exists, to my own body and my true self, that I may understand and love more deeply.
I think this was because of the themes of enstasy and self-understanding under God as a basis for love.

I feel like I've kind of lost the thread of the UF's argument now. When I finish Needleman I'm planning to go back to Meditations on the Tarot in the hope that I can recapture it.

Lost Christianity

Further quotes from Needleman's Lost Christianity. These come, supposedly, from a mysterious Middle Eastern monk called Father Sylvan, about whose actual existence I'm a little skeptical. But what he says is spot on:

It is not demanded of us that we always be in the state of the heart which grants us vision and self-mastery. It is only demanded of us that we know the state we are in.

And, speaking of the reason that Christianity turns mysticism into persecution of heretics:

The causes of religious violence...lie in [the] tendency to leap impatiently from metaphor to symbol. One struggles to live according to the Teaching and gradually a certain level of understanding is reached. One begins to feel and know, to a certain degree, how important the Teaching is to forgets that I myself need the Teaching even more than the world does.

And, on reform:

If we would infuse new life into Christianity, it is necessary first and last, to occupy the body of the old Christianity, just as Christ occupied the body of the old Adam... Criticism is not the point. Presence is the point, awareness of the gap separating the ideas and the actual situation...But who is there who can occupy the tradition in order to reconstruct the teaching? Where are the few Christians who can become, so to say, the "subtle body" of the Church?...It can only begin with individuals who can occupy their own being... Only in rare moments can I be toward myself what I wish to be toward the tradition. And if I cannot be a forgiver of myself, how shall the power of forgiveness ever enter toward Christendom itself?

Monday, 24 September 2007

What I'm reading

It's not unusual for me to be reading two or three books at once. I usually have one "recreational" and sometimes one "serious" book by my bed, and a "serious" book in the lounge that I read over breakfast (that is, in short sections and at a time in the day when my head is clearer than last thing at night).

At the moment, though, for various reasons I'm reading five (six if you count Meditations on the Tarot, the reading of which has paused for now).

Until yesterday my breakfast book was Leslie LeCron's Experimental Hypnosis, a classic in its field (I like to own classics in the fields I'm interested in). I mainly bought it for Milton Erickson's chapter on time distortion, but there's some other good stuff in it too. Because it's so old (originally published 1948 - 60 years ago!) a lot of what's in it is just common knowledge in hypno circles now, but by no means all.

(Where are today's books like this, and like Altered States of Consciousness by Charles Tart - collections of leading-edge research, by scientists, but accessible to a wider audience?)

My current breakfast book is the next one for our occasional Cityside book group: Lost Christianity by Jacob Needleman. It's an odd book, one secular-Jewish philosophy professor's very heartfelt search for the "lost Christianity" that he is sure must be out there somewhere - the one that "actually produces real change in human nature, real transformation". Sadly, I have to agree with him that that one has been lost - though also, more hopefully, that it's worth looking for.

Key quote:

I, as a professional philosopher, had long since been forced to accept that philosophical ideas by themselves change nothing in the life of an individual... through [intellectualism] modern man squanders his attention in the intellectual function while remaining cut off from the emotional and instinctual sides of his nature...

My "serious" bedside book currently is Sharon Begley's Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain - the title has an obvious relevance to my "Change Your Mind" course. It's about "neuroplasticity", the phenomenon whereby not just the content but the structure of brains is subject to change, and is based around one of the Dalai Lama's Word and Life Conferences on that topic. Begley has a slightly annoying habit of comparing an idealized Buddhism to a misconstrued Christianity, to the latter's detriment, and an also slightly annoying habit of using flashy similes in an attempt to communicate to a popular audience - though it's not anything like as annoying as the hearty stupid folksiness of a "For Dummies" book. But the research itself is fascinating, the experiments are well described and the implications carefully teased out. Basically, by concentrated attention we can change how our brains work, including making ourselves more compassionate and accepting towards others. This is definitely good news.

My two "recreational" books at the moment are George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and Darby Conley's latest Get Fuzzy treasury, LoserPalooza. LoserPalooza is as funny as Get Fuzzy usually is, that is, very funny. I use it to relax and cheer myself up. I'm having trouble getting into A Game of Thrones; it's not really my kind of fantasy. As the Amazon review says, " There is much bloodshed, cruelty, and death", which I should have expected given that I picked it up (off a sale shelf in Vroman's Bookshop in Pasadena) based on a vague memory of it being mentioned a few times on Story-Games. I love the Story-Games folks, but they do tend to the bloodshed, cruelty and death end of things in their tastes a lot of the time. I may put it aside and come back to it later.

In a burst of confidence that anyone will read these meanderings, I've used my Amazon Associates ID to do the links and put one of Amazon's new widgets in my (now rather crowded) sidebar. I promise if I get any money for directing buyers to Amazon's site that I will spend it on books, which I will then review.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Character creation comes third

I've started to work out a sequence for starting up a Pentasystem game. So far, it looks like this:

  1. Pull out the coolmap and decide what themes on it engage you. Add in others, by all means.
  2. Find which entities connect to those themes, and divide up ownership of them among the players.
  3. Create main characters and give them motivating attributes that link to the themes and entities.
  4. Create supporting characters that are connected to the main characters and that put a face on the entities. Probably do this with an R-map. Make sure you build in some conflict ("family is important to me, I hate heretics, my brother-in-law is a heretic").
  5. Add motivating attributes to the main characters which connect them to the supporting characters.
  6. Create some situations, as gateways, which will act as "inciting incidents" to the main characters you have - features of the world-as-it-is that they can't ignore but will need to try to change, just because of who they are. Make sure, as well, that the things that can bring about change are things the characters are uniquely equipped to do.
  7. Engaging, conflict-filled gameplay ensues. Or such would be my assumption.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Wisdom's Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition

I'm reading Wisdom's Children by Arthur Versluis at the moment. It traces the obscure history of "theosophy" - not Madam Blavatsky's theosophy, but the Protestant mystical tradition of that name - starting from Jacob Boehme, though acknowledging the older tradition of which he was a part. I'm up to Part 2, which is about the foundational doctrines of theosophy, and here's my summary of Chapters 8-11 (with some of my own insights and speculations added).

There are three worlds, corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. There is the "wrath world", the world of dark fire, or Hell. There is the elemental world, the one we see around us. And there is the world of love and light, or Paradise.

Initially these three worlds were in balance. The wrath world, which is a world of separation and finitude, was necessary to bring creation into being (basically the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum). It arose from God's desire to have an other. Out of the separation of the darkness (the wrath world) from the light (the love world) came the creation of the elemental world. Unlike the early Gnostics, the theosophers did not see the elemental world as an evil creation of a demiurge but the good creation of God.

But Lucifer fell from the love world into the wrath world through his pride and self-will, and through the temptation of Adam and Eve brought wrath and darkness, separation and death, up into the elemental world. (All of this is seen as "spiritual symbolism for events with real consequences, not history".)

Christ's incarnation into the elemental world, however, brought love into that world just as the Fall had brought wrath, and by his death and resurrection he showed the way to Paradise: the transformation of wrath into love, darkness into light, separation into union, death into eternal life. Eventually, the separation of the three worlds will again be complete, redeeming the whole universe, and shutting away wrath, death and darkness forever from the elemental world.

We, however, participate in this process all the time; we are a microcosm of this macrocosm. If we are actively transforming wrath into love, and passively receiving the grace of God for this purpose and aligning ourselves with God's will (which are different ways of phrasing the same thing), we are fitting ourselves for the light world of union, Paradise. On the other hand, if we are abiding in wrath, or worse still transforming love into wrath, we are fitting ourselves for the dark world of separation.

Salvation, then, is not the acceptance of an historical atonement at one point in the past, but the enacting of an eternal atonement in the continuous present - a view which drew much wrath on the theosophers from the conventional religious authorities.

Versluis is casting out fascinating hints on how this works in practice, which are sounding like centering prayer. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Pentasystem: Player Currency and Character Currency

I finally got around to posting at Story-Games about my idea of the Coolmap,which (in very basic form) looks like this:

Ellipses mean themes, squares mean entities.

The black arrows
are the relationships between the entities (in this case, fantasy
races). The relationships are a kind of entity in their own right;
there are some themes that arise not just from one race or another, but
in the context of the relationship between the races. This is
why there are red arrows coming out of the black arrows. The red arrows
mean "if you have this entity, you potentially have this theme in your

(The three religions, incidentally, should be entities rather than themes.)

The idea is that you glance over the circled themes and
pick ones that appeal. The associated entities will have page numbers, so you can go and
check out only the bits of setting that you're interested in.

Someone in that thread mentioned Verge, which builds a map like this as the start of play (and modifies it in play - indeed, as play).

Which led to this expansion of the idea, which also draws on Shock a bit. At the beginning of a game, you all sit around and talk about what on the coolmap appeals to you, and things you want to add (or delete). Everyone gets two vetoes, which they can use on either people's suggestions of things to add, or on things that are on there already. You don't have to use your vetoes if you don't want to.

You write on any new entities or themes you've agreed on. You then pass the map around the group five times.

At each pass, you may initial any of the entities or themes. This means that you are interested in the entity/theme. You can initial the same one twice (though not more) if you are extra-interested.

After the 5 passes, if any entities are left with only one person's initials, those people get an extra go for each set of initials they have on such an entity. They can put them on any entity, including another one with only one person's initials (not theirs).

Now, "ownership" of the entities is decided by either informal discussion, a bidding system of some kind, or the use of a limited number of chances in much the same way as the above. "Owning" an entity means that you are, basically, the god, spirit, angel or patron saint of that entity - you are its GM. You can declare anything to be true about it (whole group may veto), and if anyone else wants to declare something true about it they need your approval.

Your approval, by the way, should always be given, although you can use "Yes, but", "No, but" or "Yes, and". Again, the whole group may veto, but the owner may not. The closest you have to a veto is the "No, but", which achieves the same thing (you should find out what the person is trying to achieve, of course) by different means, or allows a lesser version which is more in proportion.

If you are the only person with initials on an entity, you can do one of two things. You can automatically own the entity, but you can't create a main character which has it as a motivating attribute; or you can make it a motivating attribute for your main character, but ownership belongs to the group (or to someone else who volunteers to own it).

In general, if you own an entity, your main character can't have it as a motivating attribute.

Entity owners get a "budget" of what were called pentapoints and are now called "fortune". The size of the budget is based on how many initials there are against the entity. With this budget, you get to create supporting characters (and sets and so forth) to interact with the main characters. These are the "faces" on the entity: a priest for a religion, a member of the race for a race, and so on and so forth.

You earn additional fortune for hitting the themes that people initialled, again in proportion to how many people initialled them.

So pentapoints/fortune becomes a player currency; pool points are the character currency. Characters can be improved and helped, as well as created, with fortune - I've yet to work out exactly how this works.

I also need to figure out how you deal with emergent themes or shifting interest. Perhaps you just revise the map at the start of each session.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

I has a technologeez!

Now what I do with it?

Say hello to my little friend. Quiz keeps me (or, more likely, my heater) company in the office when I work at home.

The printer was a bit of a score. When my work moved offices, they sold off the old laser printers, so I got a LaserJet 5M with a trolley and a spare toner cartridge for $50.

I'm using it to print flyers and the like. I've had a few problems with paper jams, but the installation - which I had expected to take an hour of frustrated swearing - couldn't have been simpler. I plugged it into my computer and switched it on. Quoth Windows:

New hardware detected. [Pause]
HP LaserJet 5M. [Pause]
Your new hardware is installed and ready to use.

It took about 20 seconds. I was gobsmacked.

Oh, and the caption? Inspired by this:

I has a money. What I do wif it?

Friday, 3 August 2007

Meditations on the Tarot: The Pope

The fifth card of the Major Arcana is the Pope, in the act of benediction. The Unknown Friend defines benediction as "the putting into action of divine power transcending the individual thought and will of the one who is blessed as well as the one who is pronouncing the blessing". Blessing, according to the Kabbala, is part of a circulation like the circulation of the blood; as one acolyte holds his left hand up, prayers rise to God, and as the other holds his right hand down, blessings return to humanity. The two pillars, and the Pope's triple cross and blessing hand, represent the same. They are the pillars of Mercy and Severity.

Prayer can be any kind of vertical longing: the thirst for truth (answered with the benediction of illumination), suffering (answered with the benediction of consolation), and work (answered with benedictions appropriate to the kind of work) are the prayers of the mind, heart and will.

Horizontal respiration is the alternation between outward and inward attention; vertical respiration is as described above, and if it is learned in this life, death (the transition from horizontal to vertical) will lose its sting.

Horizontal respiration has the law "Love your neighbour as yourself"; vertical respiration, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength".

The triple cross (which, apparently, is not on the US Games version of the Marseilles Tarot) shows the three levels or stages of each kind of respiration. Horizontal respiration has the three levels: love of nature, love of neighbour, love of the beings of the spiritual hierarchies; while vertical respiration has three stages: purification by divine breath, illumination by divine light, and mystical union in divine fire. The triple cross has three vertical and three horizontal elements, and is the perfect union of horizontal and vertical.

The UF has, at this point, a digression on the outer roles of Emperor and Pope, and on the "magical deeds and works acting behind the facade of history", which I will ignore because, frankly, it seems a bit crackpot to me. (You may think this whole exercise seems crackpot to you, of course.)

His next idea that I want to talk about is that the Pope guards the threshold or equilibrium between "day" and "night", human effort and divine grace. The Emperor is the King, ruler of the day, the outer world; the Hermit is the Prophet, ruler of the night, the inner world; the Pope is the High Priest, set between.

The UF repeats his point here about different kinds of truth. The Pope represents the kind of truth which is based on harmonious respiration, of moral truth and logic, according to which the earth is the centre of the cosmos because it is the scene of the Incarnation - although in phenomenal truth and factual logic, the earth orbits the sun. Factual truth (veritas, emeth) is in conflict with moral or ideal truth or mercy (misericordia, chesed). This conflict between the ideal ("marriage is indissoluble") and the real ("marriages break up") is the fifth wound which the Pope possesses and the Emperor does not, the wound of the heart.

This is the conflict between the sephira of chesed (mercy) and geburah (severity), resolved in tiphereth (beauty), which is the sephiroth of the heart and the wound of the heart.

The UF now spends several pages quoting other writers on the pentagram, and argues that there is an evil pentagram (the emancipated human will separated from the unity of the will of God, personal arbitrary magic) and a good Pentagram (the emancipated human will united with the will of God, personal sacred magic). These have nothing to do with whether the pentagram is upright or not.

The first operates by force of will, the second by purity of will. Purity of will, in an impure human being, is attained when five things are "nailed" and hence wounded:
  1. The desire to be great (the heart) - male side, great in one's own eyes; female, great in others' eyes;
  2. The desire to take (right hand) - male;
  3. The desire to keep (left hand) - female;
  4. The desire to advance at the expense of others (right foot), to hunt (male);
  5. The desire to hold on to at the expense of others (left foot), to trap (female).
A wound "is a door through which the objective exterior world intrudes into the interior...". By this definition, each of our five senses is a wound, showing us objects external to ourselves which may not be as we wish. And the five organs of action - the four limbs and the head - correspond also to these five wounds, as summarized above, though the fifth wound (of the desire to be great) is not in the head but in the heart, from which it controls the head as its instrument.

"This is why many thinkers and scientists want to think 'without the heart' in order to be objective - which is an illusion, because one can in no way think without the heart, the heart being the activating principle of thought; what one can do is to think with a humble and warm heart instead of with a pretentious and cold heart."
I like that, it's well put.

So, how are the five wounds acquired? Through the practice of poverty, chastity and obedience. Obedience, to nail the will to greatness of the heart (the Usurper); poverty, to nail the hands which desire to take and keep (the Thief); and chastity, to nail the desire to advance and hold on at the expense of others, to hunt and trap, which are the desires of the feet (the Hunter).

Obedience is the natural result of recognising something higher than oneself (something we modern people have particular difficulty with).

Poverty is the practice of inner emptiness, the silence of personal desires, emotions and imagination, so that the soul can receive revelation of the word, the life and the light. It is the perpetual expectation of what is new and unexpected, the readiness to learn and receive, which enables illumination, revelation and initiation.

Here is where I realized that I had got poverty backwards in the Journey in Four Directions. It isn't being "content with what you have" at all; it is recognizing that what you have is empty and that there is better to come. The UF tells a story of four brothers seeking the greatest treasure. The first stops when they find iron, the second when they find copper, the third when they find silver, but the last brother perseveres until he finds gold. All the brothers find wealth that contents them; only the last finds the greatest treasure.

Chastity is living "according to solar law, without covetousness and without indifference. Because virtue is boring and vice is disgusting. But that which lives at the foundation of the heart is neither... [it] is love...." Chastity is the state in which the heart becomes awakened and functions as the sun, the centre, to which the lower centres conform. Chastity is not just about sex; it is about the choice between "solar law and... dulling intoxications". Fanaticism, nationalism, some kinds of occultism, are all unchaste.

Not the full possession of the virtues (impossible in this life), but their practice, is what leads to the five wounds. And this establishes the presence of the good. Good does not fight evil; it either triumphs by being present, or is defeated by being absent.

With a reflection on the stigmata of St Francis, the UF suggests that the function of the wounds is to bring about a change from the natural state (limbo) to the human state (purgatory), and from that to the divine state (paradise). Limbo is innocent nature; purgatory, suffering nature. By bringing the divine into these, the five wounds liberate and reunite.

Now, symbols. The cross, with its four parts, is the symbol of obedience, the unity of horizontal and vertical, and also of faith. The pentacle is the symbol of hope, the vow and virtue of poverty; effort and work, the presence of the divine here below. The hexagram is the symbol of love and of chastity, "the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Mother, Daughter and Holy Soul". (I couldn't find much on the latter fascinating idea; the book The Most Holy Trinosophia, which uses the phrase, appears to get it from Meditations on the Tarot.)

The UF assigns these to different ages of history: the age of faith, in the Middle Ages; the age of hope, in the Renaissance, which, however, split hope in man off from hope in God, creating the materialistic civilization we now have. The spiritual post of the Pope is to guard the pentagram of the five wounds, the one legitimate way of passing from the cross to the hexagram, ensuring that obedience, poverty and chastity endure in the world. He doesn't talk about the age of love - presumably it is yet to come.

I found this a fascinating chapter, like all of these letters full of ideas, but much better tied together than in the previous chapter (The Emperor). I had at least one "aha!" moment in the re-presentation of poverty as a state in which we recognize our own emptiness, but have hope for attaining fullness - hence "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven". And the concept of the five wounds "nailing" those things in us which prevent our wills from being pure and in alignment with the will of God is an excellent one.

I look forward to further insights in the next letter, The Lover(s).

Monday, 30 July 2007

Underground Railroad: Play Example

I just finished this Underground Railroad play example. (8 pages, pdf.)

This isn't Actual Play; it's Virtual Play, an imaginary scene with imaginary players that gives a feel of what I'm striving for. It's been a very useful exercise, because it's shown me all kinds of weaknesses (and possibly unnecessary complexities) in the rules. The conflict rules are going to have a big revision as a result of it.

I think the most useful thing it gives to someone reading it is a feel for how the cooperative creation of the story happens.

A number of current Story-Games discussions have informed it in one way or another.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Underground Railroad: Earthist Mystics

Earthist mystics, in my Underground Railroad setting, are kind of shamanic. Through various things I've been reading lately I've expanded my idea of how that might go.

My current thoughts are that there are, in these mystics' cosmology, at least three concentric worlds: from inner to outer, the body world, the soul world and the spirit world. Most people can only perceive the body world directly, accessing the other two through it, but the mystics' training gives them the ability to first perceive, then manipulate, and finally enter the soul world, and eventually the spirit world.

The soul world is perceived symbolically and works by relationship and analogy rather than by the rules of the body world. For example, distance in the soul world is not physical distance but relational or emotional distance. Your lover who is a thousand miles away in the body world is right next to you in the soul world. Even relatively inexperienced mystics can perceive these connections between people (though, since the people look nothing like they look in the body, if they don't know both their body and soul appearance they won't be able to connect the two). They can see if you're lying or afraid or angry, as well.

The worlds are closely linked in people, of course - that's more or less a definition of "people" to an Earthist mystic - so healers can see (and advanced healers can manipulate) the health and general state of the body through the soul world. I'm thinking of introducing a famous healer, Soul-Armed <whatever his name ends up being>, who lost part of his left arm in an accident but retained the soul version of it; he can put his missing hand into you and fix your internal organs. (I have in mind a section of famous people to use as both an enrichment of the setting and also, should you wish it, either main characters or supporting characters.)

Perception of the soul world differs between different people, because it's symbolic. However, inexperienced mystics tend to see it rather dimly and in terms of shadows, while experienced mystics see it much more clearly and in terms of light. Who you are looking at also makes a difference: an experienced mystic will seem much sharper and brighter, even to an inexperienced mystic, than an ordinary person.

The small spirits of place, which basically inhabit the spirit world but can descend into the soul world if they want, can meet the mystics there and communicate with them. The relationship with the astronomical gods of the Lunar-Asterists is a matter up for debate. I want to include a mysterious teacher who is synchretizing the two religions and starting to gain a following for what is effectively a new faith. I'm planning to scatter quotes from his philosophy around the book (or maybe it will be someone else's philosophy).

The spirit world is, for humans, uncommunicable and indescribable, since it transcends names and forms; it is a realm of pure being and identity. Mystics believe that by practicing their spiritual disciplines of concentration, renunciation and attention they can come to experience this aspect of reality, though of course they can't say anything about it because words are inapplicable.

When a person's body dies, their soul, no longer anchored in the body world, is drawn towards the spirit world. However, if there is something in the soul world that holds them, they may hang about until it is resolved. If they are very strong or determined, they can cause effects in the body world in pursuit of their resolution. (They're ghosts or unquiet spirits, in other words, and a mystic will generally be called upon to find out what they want so that they can move on.)

Earthist mystics regard elemental magic, which affects primarily the body world, as something of a distraction, and when they study magic it tends to be the soul-oriented kind - communication, domination and the like. However, advanced mystics, who have integrated body, soul and spirit, can often perform soul-body magic like shapeshifting and healing.

Mechanically, I've decided that this kind of thing (magic, psychic powers, superpowers and so forth) all falls under Special Effect: Unusual Powers. I suppose being a lightning calculator, having an eidetic memory or being a contortionist would too. Like any other Special Effect, you buy levels of it, each one more expensive than the last. This is independent of your rating in the related attribute, though. For example, if doing magic was going to be very important to your character's self-definition, but you saw her as a beginning mage, you might buy one level of Special Effect: Unusual Powers but put four or five dice into her Mage attribute. She would be able to reliably light fires or whatever - she'd be very good at it - but she couldn't shoot firebolts.

Meditations on the Tarot: The Emperor

The Emperor, says the Unknown Friend, is a symbol of authority - which he distinguishes from force or power. The Emperor doesn't bear a sword, but a sceptre; he has renounced compulsion and violence. In fact, his authority is shown by what he has actively renounced. "He has renounced ease, being not seated. He has renounced walking, being in a leaning position and having his legs crossed. He may neither advance in order to take the offensive, nor move back in order to retreat... he is a guardian bound to his post." He has renounced movement and action, by the position of his legs and arms. His belt restrains his instinctive nature, and his heavy crown painfully restrains his thought and arbitrary imagination, for it is a crown of thorns, the sign not only of his legitimacy but of a mission from above. It is not a personal mission; it is a mission symbolized by the throne, against which the shield rests.

These four renunciations establish a fourfold emptiness, into which the fourfold divine name YHWH, source of authority, can enter. His personal intellectual initiative is renounced in favour of divine initiative; his action and movement are renounced and replaced by the action of divine revelation and the movement of divine magic; his personal mission, his name, is renounced and replaced with authority, law and order. This leads the UF to a long digression on free will and divine power which I won't go into as there's nothing that strikes me as particularly new about it, until he gets to the idea of tzimtzum, the withdrawal of God, taught by Lurianic Kabbala.

God, according to this idea, had to withdraw in order to make a void within himself where creation - and hence freedom - could come into existence, and the Emperor imitates this action. In doing so, he enables the complete divine name to manifest through him, the complete authority of God, the post of the Emperor, "the state of consciousness of the complete synthesis of mysticism, gnosis and sacred magic", initiation. That is, the state of consciousness in which the temporal and eternal are one and are simultaneously visible. This sanctification of the Divine Name in humanity is the deeper meaning of the first petition of the Lord's Prayer, "hallowed be thy name".

Another digression, this time on Hermetic philosophy, concludes: "its teaching... consists of spiritual exercises and all its arcana (including the Arcana of the Tarot) are practical spiritual exercises, whose aim is to awaken from sleep ever-deeper layers of consciousness." The Gospels are also spiritual exercises, for participation, not just scrutiny. "The aim of spiritual exercises is depth. It is necessary to become deep in order to be able to attain experience and knowledge of profound things. And it is symbolism which is the language of depth - thus arcana, expressed by symbols, are both the means and the aim of the spiritual exercises of which the living tradition of Hermetic philosophy is composed." After a digression on reincarnation - which he sees as God giving multiple opportunities to begin again - he states, "An arcanum practised as a spiritual exercise for a sufficient length of time becomes an aptitude. It does not give the pupil knowledge of new facts, but makes him suited to acquire such knowledge when he has need of it... The initiate is one who knows how to attain knowledge, i.e. who knows how to ask, seek and put into practice the appropriate means in order to succeed... Spiritual exercises alone have taught him." He calls this the arcanum of the three united endeavours (ask, seek, knock), which lead to receiving, finding and gaining access.

The Emperor is thus the one who has authority because he represents humanity before God. He is not superhuman, but more human than anyone else and so is worthy to guard the Throne of David. In becoming fully human, he is also being transformed into the image and likeness of God; in renouncing the four arbitrary liberties of humanity, he is crucified, wounded with four wounds.

This is a complicated and digression-filled letter with multiple points which, ironically, don't appear fully integrated (given that the Emperor is the fully integrated man). The most immediately valuable to me are the side points about spiritual exercises as preparation for knowledge, making you the kind of person who can know. A spiritual exercise in which we renounce intellectual initiative, movement, action and personal missions - in which we sit silent and still and listen - is therefore preparation for us to be filled with knowledge of God, to become truly ourselves, truly human and in the image of God. This, then, is the purpose of Centering Prayer.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Pentasystem: conflict

A couple of posts ago I wrote that I wanted Pentasystem conflict to flow back and forth like Dogs conflict. Dogs does this through "sees" and "raises"; you roll all your dice at the beginning, then spend the results a few at a time in each round of the conflict until someone doesn't have enough to continue, or doing so would be too costly. You can get extra dice by "escalating", changing the kind of conflict it is (for example, going from "just talking" to "physical").

The Pentasystem already has the escalation idea (it's called shifting the ground of the conflict, and it increases the seriousness of the consequences of rolling certain numbers on the dice). What about the "sees" and "raises"? It's at least possible that I can achieve a similar feel, using a recycled idea from City of Masks.

In City of Masks, at one point, I had narration going back and forth like this: The challenger (initiating player, in Pentasystem terms) narrated first, then the responding player, then the loser of the conflict, and finally the winner of the conflict. If the responding player was also the loser, this meant three turns, otherwise four. I like this, and I think I'll keep it. (The current City of Masks procedure is that the two take turns narrating, always heading for the outcome already determined, and the winner gets to decide when to stop, so it can go on for as many turns as the winner wants.)

The other thing I'm thinking about at the moment is, who narrates the outcomes and consequences? There's no GM, so the authority that the GM normally has to declare "what happened" is allocated among the players. Currently, the Pentasystem text says this:

The owner of the defeated character, setting element etc. describes the ways in which the defeat brought about change.

I quite like this; it makes defeat more attractive. There are two things to consider, though: outcomes and consequences. Outcomes are what other games refer to as "stakes" (Dogs says "what's at stake"), except that they're more explicitly mechanical; they're the way in which the world or the situation is affected, iin terms of attributes that are created, changed or removed. The above quote refers to the outcomes. There are also the consequences, which are the things that change about the characters. At the beginning of a conflict, the two players agree on alternative outcomes, which are "in question"; as they use attributes and other resources to engage in the conflict, they declare what attributes are being put "at risk", that is, what may change as a result of having engaged in the conflict. I tend to think that regardless of winning or losing the owner of the character, element or whatever should have the say over what specific changes come about as a result of being in the conflict (because you can change by being in a conflict whether you win or lose it; consequences are based on the number of 1s and 6s you roll in the course of the conflict). This is part of what "ownership" means.

Oh, and that highlights a difference from Dogs fallout. In Dogs, you get fallout if you have had to use a lot of dice to win (basically). You get to choose whether you will have fallout from a conflict or not; you can just not push that hard. Everyone does, of course, because that's what makes the game fun, but you don't ever have to. In the Pentasystem, on the other hand, every time you roll dice you risk consequences. They could be good, they could be bad, they could not appear at all, they could appear in numbers as large as the dice, but there's always risk; that's why you have to nominate what you're putting "at risk". Just choosing to have a conflict risks consequences, and you don't get to choose how great they are. But I think you do get to choose exactly what they are; that's only fair.

I need to write this out in a proper flow which will handily double as a play aid. And do that worked example with the sky-cavalry commander and the talking cat.

Meditations on the Tarot: The Empress

Now, you'd think that The Magician would be the symbol of magic, wouldn't you? Not according to the Unknown Friend.

The Empress is the arcanum of sacred magic. There are three kinds of magic: sacred magic, where the power is divine; personal magic, where the power comes from the operator; and sorcery, where the power comes from elemental or other "unconscious forces". All of these are about the principle that "the subtle rules the dense": force rules matter, consciousness rules force, and the superconscious or divine rules consciousness. These three rulerships are symbolized in the card of the Empress by, respectively, the eagle shield, the orbed sceptre, and the crown.

The crown, the divine authorization of magic, renders it legitimate. The sceptre is magical power, and the shield is its aim: "Liberation in order to ascend". The throne is the role of magic in the world.

Miracles and redemption require the union of the divine and the human - the incarnation, in some form (which is why the UF begins this letter with the words of Mary: "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word"). The double crown of the Empress symbolizes this union, when what is above and what is below are united, and the sacred magician happily serves both what is above (in uniting with the divine will) and what is below (in the act of magic for the sake of "liberation in order to ascend"). This is the result of contact with the divine (mysticism), followed by understanding of the divine purpose (gnosis), put into practice.

The union of wills is potential in the crown, but is actual in the sceptre, which is a union of two cups - one, topped with a cross, pointed downwards, and the other, supported by the staff, pointed upwards. The power of the cross, the Holy Blood, descends downwards and enters the human Grail; the divine presence enters the Eucharist.

The Empress's throne is the realm of Nature, longing for the liberation symbolized by the eagle shield. The back of it resembles wings; they are petrified and immobilized, but the promise is that they will again be liberated.

The verse John 16:6, "I am the way, the truth and the life", summarizes the first three Arcana: the true way or mystical spontaneity, the revealed truth or gnosis, and the transforming life or sacred magic.

The UF now goes into something of a digression on miracle ("the visible effect of an invisible cause, or the effect on a lower plane due to a cause on a higher plane"). In comparison with science, which aims ultimately to mechanize the intellect "in such a manner that it calculates the world instead of understanding it", and which in its practical aspect is the domination of nature by the principle of destruction and death, miracle is concerned with understanding, construction and life, "conscious participation with the constructive forces of the world on the basis of an alliance and a cordial communion with them".

The angel with the flaming sword, guarding the Tree of Life, is preventing humanity from "putting forth the hand and taking", the way of science. The sword is "a weapon of divine magic... a yes and not a no", for the fruit of the Tree of Life is destined for the worthy, but not for thieves. "The Tree of Life is the unity or synthesis of consciousness, force and matter... of mysticism, gnosis and magic." Separating out a part - magic - and making that a humanistic study is ultimately the course of death, and is the ancestor of science, because it concentrates only on visible nature and makes it mechanistic. "One has to demechanize in order to become a mage".

The UF's theme is coming out clearly: In unity, in union, in the understanding of and participation in the whole, in relationship and experience rather than intellectual understanding and analysis, is found life and redemption and divine magic.