Ever since I finished the book challenge, I have found my thoughts wandering toward what someone should read after those ten books. It is all well and good to have secreted them away in a lakeside hideaway for a month, but what should they do for their continuing education? What should they dip into over the course of the next year?
I’m not sure exactly what I’m after with this thought exercise, but since it has been persistent I figured it’s worth a post.
Coming from the lake house, they have rudimentary spirit, spell, and prayer work, as well as sense of the diversity and richness of spiritual traditions from several regions. The first year seems like it shouldn’t be too practice intensive since they are still getting their sea legs under them, but it should challenge and expand their boundaries.
Since these books can be spread over the course of a year, it feels like I can thrown them some chewier volumes, with the aim being one of deepened appreciation rather than masterful understanding. Read, consider, but don’t get stuck on the details unless they really grab hold. It seems, too, like the bonus tracks can be a little more expansive, too. I attach the bonus tracks to the units rather than the books.
Several of these books are included precisely because they make no pretensions to being how-to books. The novice pansophist doesn’t need to feel like they need to master a lot of things so much as realize that there are all kinds of mastery out there toward which they can aspire. I have broken the list down into four units. The American inflection of pansophism remains a central theme.
The Practical Unit
These books aren’t so much as a unit separate from the rest but workbooks that they can tap into throughout the year. These should be the first things that the student picks up after the lake.
Bonus Track: Greet the six directions every day. Share some bit of your life with them. I like to pass the first cup of coffee to the six directions on a daily basis and will often do the same when I’m working with tobacco. Learn where the directions fall in reference to your home and orient yourself within the landscape. What cities and geological features lie in the various directions? What comes from those directions to you, both in a mundane and spiritual sense?
(1) Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron
I chose this over other texts by Cameron because it pairs so well with many of the other units. Its focus on full embodiment in our senses pairs nicely with the material they will encounter in the ethnographic unit. The exercises in self-discovery and self-understanding suit the psychological unit.
More importantly, though, it is a well-structured treasure trove of exercises that can be integrated with the ritual practice developed at the lake. The witch work begun with Teen Witch can now be amplified with the artistic experiments suggested throughout. While there is nothing wrong with taking the book on its own terms, I would encourage the student to use it strategically, picking this or that section as it suits their work.
(2) How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan
It is surely time for the student to start exploring the many forms of conscious meditations and figure out if there are any that work exceptionally well or poorly for them. This isn’t meant as substitute for daily prayer and practice, but developing a meditative practice should amplify both.
Don’t read the rest of the units one after the other. Read one book from one list, then a book from another list. Like this (or remixed a little to suit personal interest):
- Singing to the Plants
- Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Boundaries of the Soul
- Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans
- In Search of Deep Time
- The Dream and the Underworld
- Remains of Ritual
- Liber Novus
The Ethnographic Unit
All of these books detail profoundly local spiritual traditions from a sensitive outsider’s perspective. Some of these grow out of decades of time spent visiting and revisiting the people and places they detail. They all make space in their texts for the voices and insights of the people they observe. They are rich, humane, historical, and unromantic. They suggest a way of being embedded within a place and its history in a dynamic and responsive fashion.
Some of these descriptions of ritual work are likely to challenge the student’s sensibilities (they challenge the author’s, too!). Sit with the discomfort rather than trying to push it away either through ready forms of dismissal (e.g., comfortable dogmatism) or acceptance (e.g., lazy relativism).
Bonus Track: Identify a cultural network of myth and/or folklore that appeals to you and spend some time learning about the lived experience of the people who nourish(ed) it. As you read through these ethnographic accounts, consider the relationship between these stories and their peoples. I would encourage you to consider the distance between life and story. If you’re feeling like a little fiction, pick up Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber.
Now, consider your own place in ‘your’ popular culture.
(3) Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon by Stephan V. Beyer
Beyer takes the reader on a lively romp through the world of mestizo healers in all its wondrous and ambiguous glory. These shaman’s entheogenic work provides an important counterweight to the romantic, open-your-mind attitude that many of us have inherited from the 1960s and early 1970s psychedelia scene.
(4) Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans by Stacy B. Schaefer
The Huichol are no strangers to entheogens, but Schaefer’s text opens a window onto the day-to-day realities that accompany the more intense visionary experiences. Devotion here appears full embodied in commitments to family and the broader community without losing its fundamentally personal character. Pay special attention to the way in which weaving provides women with a tool for mediating these different aspects of life.
(5) Remains of Ritual: Northern Gods in a Southern Land by Steven M. Friedson
Music and dance form the center of Friedson’s text much like weaving forms the center of Schaefer’s. More so than either of the other two texts here, this one exposes the reader to way in which history and memory become constitutive elements of present-day spiritual realities.
The Science Unit
Pansophism isn’t strictly about science, but I don’t think we can appreciate the modern world’s wisdom without some appreciation of science. So, just a couple of short books to shake things up. I have deliberately chosen short texts because I don’t think it will serve the student well to get bogged down in the details of this material.
Bonus Track: You are working with plants, right? You are paying attention to the movement of animals around you and your work, right? The internet, beginning with Wikipedia, provides you with many tools to learn more about the biological, chemical, and geological dimensions of those beings. Follow the chains of life up and down, from chemical to ecological, ecological to astronomical. Like all of this unit, this isn’t about expertise but appreciation.
(6) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
Science is a quite specific form of knowledge and practice and Kuhn’s work, while a little dated, remains an excellent introduction to science’s specificity. While the pansophist will need to keep in mind that science is not the only form of knowledge out there, they should appreciate it on its own terms. With little verbiage, Kuhn makes clear how much of science is a practical rather than theoretical enterprise and how much of science depends upon oral and hands-on transmission.
(7) In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life by Henry Gee
This is a book all about epistemic humility. Gee points us repeatedly toward the limits of our animal cognition and the ways in which science has allowed us to stretch those limits. Pay attention to his account of evolution, but also pay attention to its implications for the limits of our spiritual cognition, too.
The Psychological Unit
As the pansophist’s spiritual work begins to manifest more clearly in dreams and daily life, it helps to have a framework of psychological health that encompasses the spiritual world.
Bonus Track: Start a dream journal. Use it for inspiration when undertaking creative work and information when attempting to communicate with spiritual beings. Pay attention to recurring themes and images.
(8) Boundaries of the Soul by June Singer
Singer’s introduction to Jungian psychology provides the pansophist with a lot of good material to think with, whether it is the use of active imagination and artistic activity to access spiritual insights or realistic advice for how to distinguish between healthy spiritual experiences and more dangerous, disintegrative encounters with the divine.
(9) The Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman
One of my favorite books on dream interpretation precisely because it so adamantly discourages us from interpreting them. Instead, Hillman provides some tools for giving the dream world more density, for allowing spiritual forces to take up residence and body through our imagination. It makes for a good next step book in spirit work.
(10) The Red Book/Liber Novus by C. G. Jung
I would be remiss not to point our pansophist toward this wonderful exemplar of art as spirit work. Inspiring in more ways than one. Keep in mind that Jung would traverse through travel some of the terrain of this list’s ethnographic unit.
* * *
So, there you go, Pansophist: Year One.
Like Batman, except less hitting, trauma, madness, and capital.
Okay, nothing like Batman. That’s probably a good thing, really.