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Author Archives: Zak Kotlow

About Zak Kotlow

Zak has two master's degrees in philosophy, from Brandeis University and University of California Santa Barbara. He is currently the lead editor for Dungeons in a Box, and he spends much of his time in the realm of fantasy crafting new plots and ensuring the adventure is in mechanical balance. When he's not DMing, he also enjoys hiking, studying eastern philosophy, and playing board games.

The Art of Breathing, by Danny Penman

The Art of Breathing: How to Become at Peace with Yourself and the World, by Danny Penman
Hampton Roads Publishing, 1642970425, 128 pages, May 2022

Breathing may just seem like the simplest thing in the world – something that doesn’t even cross our minds on a daily basis, it just happens to us. Naturally, The Art of Breathing: How to Become at Peace with Yourself and the World by Danny Penman PhD has much more to say on the subject. If breathing is really an art, it must be an ability which we can develop and deepen to reach a far greater depth than the usual automatic bodily process we’re so familiar with. Penman’s depth of experience and expertise as a meditation teacher and award-winning author certainly delivers on that promise. 

Going hand-in-hand with developing breathwork is the practice of mindfulness, which has become such a prevalent subject in recent times. As these topics have gradually diffused into western culture, and as more and more books, courses, and retreats emerge every year, how does an individual book stand out amid the crowd? Penman’s answer is to match the form to the content, which is certainly the most striking aspect of this little book.

The Art of Breathing doesn’t seek to simply impart information and techniques, like so many other books on these subjects do. Instead, the design of the books is a delightful journey through visual space as well as the realm of ideas. You almost can’t find a page without some sort of illustration, alternative layout, or background image that draws in your senses and evokes the presence of the natural world while you learn how to harness the power of your breath.

Some texts on meditation and mindfulness can be a little dry, like an instruction manual that has great results promised at the end, but Penman’s book takes an entirely different approach. As the title suggests, mindfulness practices are not meant to be solely therapeutic but also aesthetic. The quality of your experience is at least as important as the less-stressed, calm, and present state of mind you wish to gain. The immersion in imagery, which often involves plants, animals, and other scenes from Nature, helps to ground the reader in the world rather than removing awareness to the abstract mental realm.

As many practitioners of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, etc. would tell you, deliberately striving to achieve a specific result is more likely to be a hindrance than a help.

“The aim of mindfulness is not to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. It is to understand how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself into knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion.”1

Instead, Penman writes that mindfulness provides you with a place where one’s thoughts and emotions may be observed like the rise and fall of the waves, and in those spaces between lies a realm of expanding insight.

One of the specific features of this book that stands out is the design of the meditations and other exercises presented throughout the chapters. You might be familiar with meditations in other books that are paragraphs of text instructing you what to do. But if you aren’t a long-practicing meditator, those kinds of instructions can be difficult to hold in mind – especially while you’re supposed to be paying less attention to what the mind is saying. Not an ideal method for this sort of practice, unless you happen to have a picture-perfect memory. This is another place where Penman’s dedication to an aesthetic quality of presentation manages to shine forth.

In addition to offering audio versions of the meditation exercises on his website, Penman solves the problem of “too much text” by using flow charts set against the background of a great tree, full of tangled branches. It’s so easy to imagine a nest of birds hiding just out of sight while your eyes move over these pages, reinforcing the strong connection with the natural world that the author is encouraging us to remember. While engaging in these practices, it is a simple matter to glance at the next bubble in the flowchart to see the next step of the exercise. I found this incredibly helpful at keeping my attention focused on the exercise, moving from one step to the next without having to search for the place I’d left off.

The artistic style and layout isn’t the only aesthetic feature of this book either. Mindfulness practices can sometimes get stuck in the meditation-phase, where it seems like the only way that this quality of experience develops is by just focusing on the breath. But there’s so much more than breathing in Penman’s work.

For instance, you’ll find a Fruit Meditation, which takes mindfulness out of the breathwork realm for a moment and into the full range of the senses. Through deliberate exploration of a piece of fruit in all its sensory aspects, the exercise heightens your attention to all the little details packed into the simple activity of eating. Experiencing the manifold presence of a piece of fruit is an awakening to the quality of our sensations that our usual habits and attitudes might be ignoring.

This emphasis helps us move beyond the mindfulness found in meditation exercises and brings it out into the everyday world – a bridge that many books find difficult to cross. Penman is also unafraid to challenge common practices and conceptions about mindfulness and meditation. He argues, for example, that many people – especially beginners – would find cross-legged, lotus position meditation difficult and distracting.

Instead of trying to force yourself to sit in the “proper” position, where the discomfort of the body may hinder your ability to relax into a mindful state, Penman suggests that all you need is a Chair, a Body, some Air, your Mind, and that’s it! Although developing different positions and postures may be great in the long-run, your practice shouldn’t be held back on that account.

Overall, The Art of Breathing receives a big, two-thumbs-up recommendation. Although much of the content about breathwork, mindfulness, and meditation can be obtained from many other sources, Penman’s book stands out in its artistic presentation. This gives the work a sense of wholeness and integrity, which helps immerse the reader more deeply and immediately in the quality of awareness that is the subject of the book. And while it’s a short book – you can easily read the whole thing in an hour – its wisdom and exercises are so easy to return to that you’ll want to find it a prominent space on your shelf.

Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Luke Lafitte

Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Spiritual Freedom and the Re-animation of Matter, by Luke Lafitte
Inner Tradition, 1644114062, 480 pages, February 2022

As the heft of its title might suggest, Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Spiritual Freedom and the Re-animation of Matter is a huge undertaking. Luke Lafitte’s great endeavor is to take the reader on a journey through the history and transformation of America’s unique archetypal mythology so that we, in the present day, may better grasp the nature of who we are as well as our relationship to the world in which we live. It is certainly a fascinating journey, but also one that requires a high degree of vigilance and attention from the reader as Lafitte’s argument unfolds.

The gist of the book’s overarching argument is that America’s “cowboy” archetype – the self-reliant, individualistic person who explores the frontier and overcomes the challenges posed by Nature – has gradually been replaced by the “mechanical-man” archetype. The mechanical-man is inextricably intertwined with technology: as such, the primary qualities of this archetype are centered around information, communication, and control. This is not only communication with other people and gaining information and control of the external environment–these activities are directed more toward humanity’s relationship and integration with technology itself.

What makes Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm truly unique is the detailed look at how American history and (science-)fiction are woven together, starting from the age of steam and progressing into the contemporary world. He has a great eye for picking up on the mythological motifs and patterns arising from fiction in several different scientific eras from the 19th through the early 21st century, and discusses them at length to show how societal attitudes toward technology change throughout these time periods. From the Wizard of Oz, to Tesla and Edison, to Azimov, Musk and Star Wars – both the scientific and fictive worlds are shown as playing off of and informing one another.

As someone interested in both science fiction and ethical issues, one of the many insightful points that really hit home for me, was Lafitte’s idea that science fiction not only allows us to explore new realms of possibility pertaining to technology, but that the genre shines a light on ourselves. Science fiction invites us to consider who and what we are in ways that weren’t really possible in the past. Moreover, he suggests that these considerations can’t even be captured in a straightforward, socio-political discussion, due to the increasing complexity of these issues.

“Because the trade-offs [between the beneficial and destructive potential of science] were becoming more complex, they could only–in terms of human-machine interactions–be understood in terms of myth and storytelling.”1

The idea that myth illuminates aspects of human experience which are consciously unavailable to the culture that produced the myth is a well-founded notion in mythological studies. However, Lafitte argues that the mechanical-man archetype takes us in a new direction, offering a new type of mirror with which we can examine ourselves. With the rapid development of technology throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially as “machines” began to be seen as possessing some form of vitality, this was the first time in human history that we had a kind of consciousness–similar enough to our own–which allowed us to probe our own nature in new ways.

While it’s easy to become swept up in the myths, biographical details, and historical trends Lafitte presents throughout the book, one must be careful not to lose sight of his broader argument. The quest, as Lafitte himself calls it, is aimed at not simply an informative discussion of these socio-cultural changes as America developed into a technological superpower. He is ultimately arguing that these developments are moving us toward a new paradigm of consciousness. Put in a way that might be familiar to those in spiritual circles: we are heading toward the point where human consciousness and Cosmic Consciousness merge.

This is a familiar idea that we might find in Vedanta, Buddhism, or gnostic traditions. But while these prior traditions and theories may leave the scientifically-inclined a little wary, Lafitte’s approach is couched in more recent historical and cultural trends. For certain, you aren’t likely to find the mechanical-man at the forefront of these other schools of thought, heralding the new paradigm. But as Lafitte suggests, as humanity appears to be moving into a new paradigm due to the increasing complexity of our world (due to the contributions of technology), we should expect to see the emergence of a cultural archetype which captures that spirit of complexity.

The earlier, more historically-focused, stages of the book are a fun and thought-provoking read, but upon entering the latter chapters, the reader will be more challenged by Lafitte’s main argument. Naturally, this part of the book builds upon the foundation laid throughout the earlier chapters, but the degree of conceptual discussion definitely ramps up to a whole other level. I’m not saying that this level of discussion detracts from the book–indeed, it’s the most important part!–but certainly demands more from the reader. Focused attention to the details of Lafitte’s discussion, as well as the broader perspective of the overarching quest of the book, are required to see how the ideas coalesce toward the author’s conclusion.

At the end of the day, I am deeply impressed with Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. Admittedly, it was a little tough for me to get into the book at the beginning: I was eager to dive into the conceptual discussion that lay in the second half. But as I continued to read, I found Lafitte’s insights regarding the evolution of the mechanical-man extremely valuable. The quest that Lafitte takes us on is magnificent in both scope and precision. He seeks not only to present the development of the mechanical-man as the avatar of our technological culture, but also to reveal what that might mean for our trajectory into the future. As with many processes of depth psychology, Lafitte digs into the depths (our past) in order to rediscover our spirit so that it may rise into the potentially limitless freedom of a new paradigm.

Turn Your Fandom into Cash, by Carol Pinchefsky

Turn Your Fandom Into Cash: A Geeky Guide to Turn Your Passion Into a Business (or at least a Side Hustle), by Carol Pinchefsky
Career Press, 1632651971, 224 pages, March 2022

Carol Pinchefsky’s Turn Your Fandom Into Cash: A Geeky Guide to Turn Your Passion Into a Business (Or at Least a Side Hustle) is one of the most helpful and applicable books I’ve picked up in a while. It overflows with extremely practical advice about how to tap into your personal creative pursuits to help put some extra jingle in your coin purse, or even launch the entrepreneurial adventure of your dreams!

As the title implies, this handy guide is definitely marketed for those who want to let their geek flag fly – using your knowledge and passion of whatever fandom you are a part of to bring your creations into the world. Whether you love fantasy, sci-fi, horror, cos-play, comic books, and the infinite subgenres therein, this book is a quick read to get you started on your way to Bruce Wayne-level wealth! A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but there are some success stories Pinchefsky brings in that definitely inspire the reader in that direction. And even if you aren’t interested in creating something for a fanbase like these, the author’s advice is often general enough that you could apply it to almost any type of creative venture.

Naturally, this book isn’t just about hyping you up about how to generate income from the passions you already have. The whole second chapter of the book is all about the careful considerations you’ll need to take when capitalizing on a fandom – how to do all of this legally. For some, this may feel like you just hit the inertial dampeners. . . hard. But in reality, if you are going to market a product or service related to a beloved fictional work or genre, you’ll need to be very vigilant, lest you be #lawyered back to square one.

Even though I’m a writer and editor who works with some popular intellectual property (IP), e.g. the world’s most popular roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, there were some legal details that I hadn’t been aware of. Of course, the material in this book isn’t thorough enough to substitute for full-on legal advice (as she pointedly reminds the reader, many times), she does an excellent job of going through the main concerns while helping you learn the difference between copyright, trademarks, IP licensing, and much more! Moreover, her playful tone, frequent fandom references, and motivational style keeps this potentially boring legal stuff from feeling like a bog of eternal stench.

Other informative topics you’ll find throughout the book are: business and marketing strategies (both for your product as well as for yourself and your brand), various methods of funding your new business venture, how to navigate the convention sphere, and more usual forms of employment you can find while still working with/for the fandom you love. I found one of the final chapters was also incredibly useful: a handy set of lessons-learned regarding many different aspects of being in business for yourself. These are all fairly short, a couple lines to a couple small paragraphs, summaries of things to do – or to avoid – that come from people who had to learn these lessons the hard way. By sharing these lessons with you before you make them, you won’t be doomed to repeat the mistakes of your geeky forebears.

The layout of the book is also unique, as it incorporates images, speech bubbles, and boxed text to highlight important points or cool tips. As someone who has never (ever) taken much interest in business, this punchy style really worked to keep me engaged with topics that wouldn’t normally hold my attention. That said, if you prefer a more usual style of presentation, these features might detract from your reading experience. I also feel that some of the fun pop-culture references might not have the oomph, if the reader doesn’t happen to be as enmeshed in general geek culture. So if your passion lies more in creating products within the spiritual sphere, for instance, this probably isn’t quite the droid – I mean, the book – you’re looking for.

One of the coolest features that you’ll find throughout Turn Your Fandom Into Cash is the array of case studies that Pinchefsky provides. Every chapter has at least a couple of these gems: real life instances of geeky businesses and their proprietors, which have achieved success or battled through challenges, related to the topic the author is discussing. For instance, how one individual abruptly and unexpected ended up becoming a convention showrunner because he offered some input to the staff. Or, how a geeky entrepreneur ended up getting fired from the business that she helped create. And, it’s not only case studies that provide evidence to back up Pinchefsky’s general knowledge: she often uses statistics to help strengthen her general points, and tells you exactly where she got them so you can go do your own research.

All in all, Turn Your Fandom Into Cash is an excellent guide for anyone wishing to bring their creative passions to the public, and make some money while doing so! The book is so well designed in its style and presentation that it is an easy and fun read all the way through. She really makes the notion of starting a geeky business accessible and achievable. That is not to say becoming an entrepreneur is easy – it still requires a great deal of research, hard work, and networking to find success.

But, as she reminds us, even if the first attempt(s) at creating a business should fail, doing what you love can be even more rewarding. You may have the chance to work with a favorite celebrity, have your product used in a TV series you love, or bring joy to your fandom by providing them with the perfect custom cos-play outfit! These opportunities and experiences are priceless – and in any case, you will be gaining skills and knowledge to keep pushing your passion and creativity to boldly go where no one has gone before!

Holy Love, by Elisa Romeo and Adam Foley

Holy Love: The Essential Guide to Soul-Fulfilling Relationships, by Elisa Romeo and Adam Foley
New World Library, 160868802X, 224 pages, February 2022

Holy Love: The Essential Guide to Soul-Fulfilling Relationships by Elisa Romeo and Adam Foley is a collaborative project between a couple who began their spiritual paths as individuals, but discovered the infinite depths of divine love through their relationship. As partners with children, Elisa and Adam help couples connect with their own Souls, and with one another’s, to transform relationships and bring about a state of mystic union with the divine love that flows outward from every Soul.

Reading through the first few sections of Holy Love, it’s easy to get the impression that, like so many other spiritual and New Age-y texts, this book is going to be a repetition of familiar ideas and platitudes. I’m happy to say, however, that I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of attention this book gives to elucidating the various relationships we have with other people, or with distinct aspects of ourselves.

The main focus of Holy Love is that we need to recognize how these different aspects – notably, the ego and the Soul – relate to one another within ourselves, as well as how they relate to these aspects within others. In fact, the central thesis of the book is that there are four unique kinds of relationships that can exist between two people. Whether the people in question are romantic partners, family members, friends, or perhaps even strangers, the four kinds of relationships are always in a dynamic interplay with one another.

Unfortunately, and for many reasons, only a couple – or even just one – of these relationships tends to be our primary focus. Of the four kinds of relationship – ego-to-ego, ego-to-Soul within ourselves, ego-to-their-Soul, and Soul-to-Soul – our socio-cultural practices often neglect all the others in favor of the first relationship: between one’s own ego and that of the other person. Although this may seem like a familiar topic, it’s the authors’ acceptance of ego, and its role in our relationships, that sets this book apart.

Drawing from a wide variety of spiritual practices, religions, depth psychology, and personal experiences, Romeo and Foley urge that the ego has a necessary place in our lives as mystics – a person who is holy, or whole, due to their immersion in love whose source lies beyond the material world. The authors advocate that every one of us is capable of being a mystic through our connection to divine love. Yet, if we try to overcome or erase the ego in pursuit of some sort of “spiritual purity,” we also lose a practical connection to others in the material world.

“[I]f we negate the human realm and rely solely on the spiritual connection, we may be at risk of minimizing the (very human) importance of showing up consistently for others, being accountable for our own behavior, and owning our personal responsibility for our inner development.”1

Although I could continue to explore the ins-and-outs of the four types of relationships discussed in Holy Love, the expositional and theoretical points of this book are just one aspect. Going hand-in-hand with discussion of the four relationships and their interplay are exercises at the end of almost every chapter in the book. These range from meditations, to journaling exercises, to conversations and activities with others. Holy Love goes even further than other books in that it also provides links to online resources, such as recorded meditations, created by the authors. This is a fantastic little bonus, as I find that listening to a meditation is usually a much more effective way to ease the monkey mind than trying to meditate while reading the text!

Even though such exercises are often found in books on spiritual development, Romeo and Foley take special care to construct the practical application of their approach around a central practice – journaling to one’s (or even another person’s) Soul. While a journaling practice can take many forms, I have rarely come across one which so heavily employs dialogue between the different aspects of the Self. I was thrilled to see that this really highlights Elisa’s background in depth psychology, where it is important for the distinct parts of the individual work toward integration, rather than subjugation, repression, etc.

From the personal accounts that appear throughout the book, directly writing and responding to the Soul creates the open, receptive state of being which enables us to hear the voice that is so often overshadowed by the ego. Instead of journaling to simply release emotional tension or clarify one’s thoughts and feelings, proposing questions directly to one’s Soul creates the space for the Soul itself to answer. Over time, this practice seems to reduce the interference from the ego, and its many surface-level concerns, allowing our Soul to grow stronger in its own voice and balance out the four relationships between ourselves and our partners.

Although the four types of relationships form the central theme of Holy Love, there are several chapters dedicated to the different ways to meet and communicate with the other’s Soul. I think this approach really helps to focus on the types of relationships which are more lacking in the contemporary world. By approaching communication with the Soul (one’s own, or that of one’s partner) from a variety of perspectives and modalities, we are presented with an open arena in which to explore the best route to strengthen these relationships.

Overall, I think Holy Love is a brilliant book to help couples develop their relationship along multiple dimensions. Even if you are not currently in a romantic relationship, this book is still worth the read, as it has more than enough material to assist in aligning the relationship between your own ego and Soul. Through practical examples, exercises, and relatable experiences, Romeo and Foley offer us fantastic guidance for how we might all realize the unlimited degree to which love can flow through us and into the world.

The Path of the Warrior Mystic, by Angel Millar

The Path of the Warrior-Mystic: Being a Man in an Age of Chaos, by Angel Millar
Inner Traditions, 1644112671, 240 pages, November 2021

Right from the outset of Angel Millar’s new book, The Path of the Warrior Mystic: Being a Man in the Age of Chaos, I was struck with the impression that this was going to be a challenging book. Not challenging in a technical way – it’s actually quite an easy read, all things considered – but in that it calls the reader to action. As this is exactly one of the major themes of Millar’s book, the provocation to take more action in our spiritual lives is what the reader should expect from delving into this text.

Before getting too involved in the text here, it should be noted that this book is certainly geared towards a male/masculine audience. Although many of the ideas presented in the text could readily apply to anyone on the path of a spiritual seeker, the book is definitely geared toward the traditional spiritual practices of “men” in our world (as the subtitle suggests). As this book serves to highlight aspects of spiritual practice that have been declining in the modern world, it would be beneficial to any reader to become more familiar with what a true warrior mystic would look like. 

As the title suggests, the purpose of the book is to illuminate and merge two roles, paths, or identities that we (in this day and age) tend to think as separate: that of the warrior and that of the mystic. Until recently, Millar argues, these two paths were often – perhaps even necessarily – linked. That is, those who seek to elevate their spiritual life must also actively participate in their physical/material existence, rather than ignoring or eschewing it. This is in stark contrast to the contemporary world, with its bias toward mental activity over the physical, where our overall spiritual health seems to be slowly eroding.

The Path of the Warrior Mystic reminds us of how deep the interconnection between our physical and spiritual lives runs: drawing from many traditions, prominent figures, and ideas coming from all over the world and through different eras of our history. From Plato in Classical-age Greece to the Buddha in India, spiritual teachers have emphasized the importance of development of the physical body just as much as contemplative efforts.

This recognition of imbalance within the masculine spiritual world too often results in wishful (and perhaps wistful) attitudes toward life and one’s goals rather than prompting us toward action. And, ultimately, while contemplation and the quieting of the monkey-mind are necessary to foster growth and development, they are insufficient. Without the beneficial impact of wisdom put into practice, for the good of the larger community as well as oneself, spiritual seeking might devolve into a shallow, hollow version of what it used to be.

A return to some form of older masculine values might cause some in our modern world to balk and object to a resurgence of “the patriarchy,” an aspect of Western culture that has led to significant harm. However, Millar is striking a common vein in the movement to bring back a vital force that has been lacking in our world. Instead of encouraging a return to the traditional values of patriarchal domination, Millar draws our attention to attitudes that, if reintroduced to culture, would help address those very problems. The blending the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of ourselves provides the sense of wholeness that is often lacking in the pursuit of purely material or social success.

“Thus, in a society that is too masculine, the creative individual brings awareness of the divine feminine. And in a society too feminine, he brings awareness of the divine masculine. In a society that is too rational, the visionary brings a return of the nonrational, and vice versa. Likewise, if it has veered too far left or right, he aims to bring it back to the straight course–the “middle path,” to borrow a phrase from Buddhism–and not have it veer to the other extreme.”1

I have both seen and felt the movements in our culture over the last few years towards the rediscovery of wisdom and different ways of knowing, such as the knowledge of our bodies through intense physical training. Millar does great work in bringing together examples and principles from spiritual traditions, artists, and philosophers from across many different cultures and time periods. He argues that the warrior-mystic is encapsulated by the creative individual, a force which can revivify the world, starting with themselves and expanding outward.

Millar is good at bringing the more abstract spiritual matters down to the level of the every-day. His writing is straight-forward and direct, not indulging in drawn-out esoteric discussions. The chapters easily indicate their topic so that it’s a simple matter of going back to a section that you want to reread (the Index in the back is also a great help!). Millar doesn’t shy away from touchy topics, such as sex and the idea that sometimes you need to end personal relationships if they are not serving the needs of your higher self.

One of my favorite sections was Millar’s discussion about man’s romantic nature being bound up with the “death drive” as a response to a significant question. To/for what should I sacrifice my life (in both senses: one’s life’s work and one’s mortal existence)? I very much resonated with this question, as it is one I have grappled with at many points in my own experience, and will definitely continue to explore the ideas prompted by this book.

The one itch that The Path of the Warrior Mystic doesn’t quite scratch is the wish to delve deeper into the topics Millar explores. This is a fantastic way to introduce the many connections arising around the pursuit of the creative spirit characterized by the warrior-mystic. But Millar’s to-the-point style and the breadth of ground that he covers leaves one wanting to go a little deeper at times. Yet, this may be what the author intends, as it is a spur to action – to take up the quest for oneself and explore the world, rather than just consuming content with the mind.

Rituals of the Soul, by Kori Hahn

Rituals of the Soul: Using the 8 Ancient Principles of Yoga to Create a Modern & Meaningful Life, by Kori Hahn
New World Library, 978-1608687527, 240 pages, October 2021

There are times when you start reading yet another book about yoga and you think to yourself: “Is it worth my time? Is this one going to just be like all the others?” Sadly, that is sometimes the case: the book provides the same information, just wrapped up in slightly different packaging. But this is definitely NOT the case for Rituals of the Soul: Using the 8 Ancient Principles of Yoga to Create a Modern & Meaningful Life by Kori Hahn! I was absolutely delighted to surf my way through this book (Kori loves ocean metaphors and is an avid surfer), and I think other readers will find it an incredible guide on their spiritual journey.

As you move through the pages, it’s quite clear that Kori’s book (her first!) is a labor of love and comes directly from the soul – which is exactly what the book is all about. More than achieving an intellectual understanding of yoga – or solely enhancing the physical exercises that the western world associates with this practice – Rituals of the Soul was created to help readers completely transform their lives. The book proves to be both an excellent source of information about the holistic practice of yoga, as well as a fantastic aid to help the reader develop a blend of spiritual exercises attuned to the unique path of their own soul.

The main current that Kori presents to us is that connecting with our intuition is the key to manifesting the dreams that flow from our deepest source – the soul. However, this book is not just about how to manifest the values given to us by society (or even our biology): financial security, success, notoriety, pleasure, etc. All of these things may come with realizing the dreams of our soul, but these are not the goal. Nor, Kori tells us straight-up, is this dream manifestation itself the purpose of yoga. “Your dream isn’t the ultimate goal. It’s merely a tool for soul growth through the eight-step yoga process.”1

It is exactly this sort of direct message that sets Rituals of the Soul apart from other books. Kori is not trying to “sell” her readers on an idea or set of beliefs. She is describing a path – a way of journeying, not simply a route – that she has found for herself, and is lovingly sharing of herself in the hope that others discover their own way of spiritual growth. Thus, what she is doing throughout the book is providing a set of techniques aimed at helping the reader become better at listening to the messages of their soul. In doing this, the reader can discover the way of spiritual growth that is unique to their own soul’s journey.

Even as I am writing this review, I feel a closeness with Kori that I don’t get from reading many other authors – something I didn’t even realize until I noticed myself referring to her on a first-name basis. At the same time that Kori is sharing her yogic knowledge, she is also sharing her own story: the lived experiences that were pivotal to her coming to the realizations she is now passing on to us. Rather than a lofty guru who is speaking from a place of mastery, Kori’s narrative sections demonstrate how much of an “average human being” she is, and how her life transformed through the deep yogic practice she presents in the book.

Rituals of the Soul has a very simple structure: one chapter each for the introduction and conclusion, and one chapter on each one of the eight steps in the yoga process. Again, Kori excels with her simplicity and directness! The eight steps of yoga that serve as the foundation of her approach are based upon principles she has distilled from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, an ancient text discussing the principles of yoga. I was surprised to learn that almost none of the Sutras deals directly with the physical practice of yoga – most of them pertain to the other, more expansive aspects of the yoga process.

This very idea is another one of Kori’s main points: most people who practice yoga in the modern world are barely scratching the surface. The postures and breath work that constitute most yoga classes, while beneficial, are ultimately meant to serve as tools for opening ourselves to our intuition – the primary means by which our soul can guide us towards growth. When all eight steps of the yoga process are integrated into one’s life, they build upon and reinforce one another, enabling the practitioner to live the dreams of their soul.

I am also deeply impressed with the thoughtful way that Kori structures her chapters. In the opening section of each one, she uses a story from her life to help create a backdrop for the more in-depth discussion of the topic. I like this strategy because it makes the principle immediately relatable to human life, and also demonstrates the principle put into practice.

After her discussion of the principles, Kori then provides clear, concrete methods for how to integrate that principle into your own spiritual practice. This could be different styles of meditation, postures, or exercises to open yourself to the whispers of your intuition. She presents these merely as examples, encouraging you to find the methods that speak most to you, and provides a step-by-step guide of how to build a spiritual practice that you can gradually incorporate into your life.

Kori’s ability to speak from a place of understanding is one of the shining features of Rituals of the Soul. She is able to offer you her wisdom and guidance in a structured, yet flexible, system – helping you to develop a style of spiritual practice that you actually can integrate into your daily life. This is not to say that doing so will be an easy journey – souls experience growing pains too – but Kori delivers a very down to earth presentation and approach that leaves you feeling much more confident in your ability to expand your spiritual journey.

All in all, I think this is an excellent book for readers who want to feel a connection with a guru, but may not be able to take up an in-person practice at the moment. Or even if you do have a spiritual teacher, Kori’s book would be a great supplement to their instruction. As Kori points out, your soul chose to be incarnated here and now for a reason, and cultivating the disciplines that allow you to better listen to its subtle messages can unveil a life of amazing possibilities. Even if you already know a thing or two about yoga and/or have spiritual practices of your own, her spirit comes through loud and clear in the book and can help further ignite your passion to follow the dreams of your soul.

The Ancient Language of Sacred Sound, by David Elkington

The Ancient Language of Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Science of the Divine, David Elkington
Inner Traditions, 432 pages, 1644111659, April 2021

In The Ancient Language of Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Science of the Divine, David Elkington has put forward a truly fascinating work about the role that sound plays in our spiritual experiences. This is a work of deep scholarship and intense study of locations around the world which are considered sacred sites to those who built them. Far from considering humanity’s ancient ancestors as primitive, this book highlights the absolutely breathtaking precision and purpose in the design of ancient monuments such as the pyramids at Giza, gothic cathedrals in Europe, and Newgrange in Ireland.

Elkington’s general thesis is that the hero — an exemplar of the capacity to grow, gain wisdom, and come to self-awareness — is a state of mind, and the development of this mental state can be aided by sacred sites. His theory has its foundation in the fairly recent discoveries about the resonant frequencies of Earth and its atmosphere. I was amazed to learn that regions below and above the ground each tend to resonate at different extremely low frequencies, and that these frequencies can also correspond to the frequencies generated by the brain: alpha, theta, and delta waves.

The idea that Elkington proceeds to develop is that many sacred sites were meticulously constructed to, under the right conditions, amplify the natural frequencies of the Earth so as to alter the brain wave patterns of anyone at that location. Through the structure’s architectural design, building materials, and geographic location, these sacred sites were built to tune in,  literally, to the energy of the world around us.

This very scientific approach to describing how we and our ancestors could come into harmony with what is greater than ourselves helps this book to feel extremely grounded compared to some other texts that discuss the experience of divine oneness. To me, the book is a fantastic bridge between scientific and spiritual approaches to how we can understand what “the hero” represents, both for our ancestors and for us today.

One of the revelatory ideas Elkington discusses which really struck me was that sacred sites are not merely historical monuments. When much of the western world has become removed from connection with the Earth and the older cultures who were so connected to the energy of the planet, we are likely to view structures like the Egyptian pyramids as symbols of some important person, group, event, etc. That is, someone or some group really wanted to leave a lasting legacy. This latter idea is much closer to our own, modern way of viewing the world. But one of the crucial ideas in this book is that these sacred sites did – and still do! – function to leave an impression upon the people visiting them: a much more potent impression than a mere symbol.

What amazed me still further about Elkington’s theory is that the spiritual impact of these sites is not made solely by visiting the structure, but through participation with it. By speaking, singing, or chanting words or phrases of power from the culture which constructed the site – the name of a god or hero, for example – the acoustic properties of the structure would amplify and enhance the sounds, building up to the mind-altering resonant frequencies. The overall idea that active participation is necessary for spiritual growth is exactly right, and is exemplified by these sacred sites.

Moving into the middle of the book, Elkington seems to take a long detour, delving into the meaning and significance of “the hero” in mythology. Interestingly, he focuses quite a bit on Jesus Christ as a hero figure rather than a historical/religious persona. Why, you might ask? Well, Elkington sets up Jesus as a heroic figure because he proposes that the Jesus we know from Christianity is just one example of someone who embodied the kind of heroic consciousness that is promoted by the sacred sites. Although I was aware that the story of Jesus shares a lot of commonalities with figures from other mythological traditions, this was my first time encountering the notion that ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is more akin to a title (similar to how ‘Buddha’ is a title) rather than an individual name.

Elkington delves heavily into the history and relationships of various ancient languages that have helped shape this title. Admittedly, this section of the book came off as a little tedious and matter-of-fact at times. The author makes all of these linguistic connections and cross-references between ancient Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, and more – often leaving me to wonder whether these developments of language actually occurred. Elkington does provide many sources and citations throughout the book, especially in this chapter, but without reading the source material or possessing deep knowledge of these ancient languages, I was somewhat skeptical of the plenitude of linguistic transformations being presented. Do these connections actually exist, or are they being presented to fit the theory?

However, I was reassured when, at the end of his linguistic explorations, Elkington himself admits to casting a skeptical eye at the mountain of linguistic data he’d uncovered. Although it would still take a great deal of research to substantiate all the bits and pieces of his work, I felt better knowing the author expressed his own doubts about his findings. Ultimately, however, the trail of linguistic breadcrumbs reaches the conclusion that Jesus (again, not the historical-religious figure) and Christianity itself dates back to the Egyptian Old Kingdom! Linking this to what Elkington discusses about sacred sites, he says “We have forgotten the power of that name, only limiting it to a kind of modified superstition, but now we can show, we can demonstrate beyond doubt that the name actually does work as a name of power, this is the name of God.”1

Elkington continues developing this startling discovery throughout the book, tying together the importance of the sacred sites, words of power, and the shifts in consciousness that may result from their combination. The Ancient Language of Sacred Sound is quite dense, and I wish I could expound more upon all the intriguing inquiries and discoveries it contains. As a fair warning, some of this book may be a little difficult to get through, depending upon the reader’s interests and attention span. But in my estimation, it is a truly unique and eye-opening book – a journey well worth the time and dedication.

Ancestor Spirit Oracle Cards, by Jade-Sky

Ancestor Spirit Oracle Cards, by Jade-Sky and illustrated by Belinda Morris
Blue Angel Publishing, 0648746805, 43 cards, 104 pages, May 2021

Opening a new oracle deck is always an exciting experience, as you never know exactly what you’re going to find inside. I’ve used shamanically-themed decks in the past, so I thought I had a rough idea about what I would find inside the Ancestor Spirit Oracle Cards by Jade-Sky and illustrated by Belinda Morris. I was expecting cards themed with different types of elemental energy, sacred sites, and spirit animals, but what I found instead blew me away.

The first thing I saw was the card-backs: a beautiful image of a living bonfire flame dancing on a black background. Very cool. With simply the flames in the midst of darkness, it makes me think that this twisting fire could come from anywhere (or any when) and gives me a sense of connection with anyone who’s ever sat or danced around such a blaze.

When I turned the deck over and started thumbing through the cards, I was surprised to see that each card was designed with people or artifacts from cultures all over the world! Each card depicts a unique group, distinguished by their varieties of clothing, jewelry, architecture, and personal features: from Amazonian tribal groups, to Tibetan monks, to medieval Scotts.

From the get-go, it was clear that Jade-Sky and Morris must have done a ton of research about the vast array of cultures and ethnicities, whether contemporary or historical, that are depicted throughout the deck. The images are packed with detail and, I surmise, meticulously curated to be faithful to the astounding breadth of humanity found within the deck. Of course, I could not always immediately tell what group or culture was on display in the card, but that’s just one of the many incentives to open the guidebook!

In addition to the wonderfully-painted images, each card has a short phrase indicating its meaning (and the name which you’ll use to look up the card in the guidebook), as well as three keywords in a smaller font below. For instance, the card “BEGIN WRITING NOW” has the keywords “Create – Express – Inspire,” while the card “HONOUR THE DEITIES AROUND YOU” has the keywords “Prayers – Offerings – Help.”

There are a couple things that this style of card text does which sets it apart from many other decks you might encounter. First, I love how the card names aren’t just a single word. The short phrases are much more evocative and provide a little more direction for what you can focus on, and do this in a very grounded way. Second, the name and keywords do not dominate the card, allowing for all the beautiful details of the image to speak for themselves. I found this overall card design a delightful mix of aesthetics and guidance.

Opening the guidebook, the Contents section is very straight-forward, with no clutter on the pages and a clear alphabetical list of the 43 card meanings. No need to fuss with a numbering system here! The short introduction provides insight into Jade Sky’s design philosophy, and I particularly like the idea that “Every culture of the world is grounded in its own wisdom, knowledge and tradition.”1 Again, this indicates the depth of research and understanding that went into the design of each card, as the card’s meaning is intimately tied to the wisdom of the depicted culture. 

After the brief guidance about how to use these cards and three sample card layouts (consisting of one, three, and seven cards), the guidebook dives right into the card meanings. The entry for each card spans about two pages. A small, black-and-white photo of the card appears at the start of each entry, so you could make your way through the guidebook on its own to get a whole sense of the deck if you wish (though you’d be missing out on all the colorful detail of the actual cards!).

Each card entry also has three sections. First, a description of the culture depicted in the card and why that culture was chosen to be paired with the meaning of the card. This historical and cultural information doesn’t seek to overwhelm you, and gives you a great jumping-off point if you want to proceed to do more in-depth research for yourself.

Yet, these informative sections are still packed with cool tidbits: for instance, “GO WITH THE FLOW” shows Kai Viti (natives of the Fiji islands) sharing Yaqona (kava). The Fijians often share this drink during “island time,” where they just relax, tell stories, and otherwise enjoy one-another’s company. I felt the energy of the card perfectly matched the sense of ease and camaraderie I could see being shared among the people in the scene.

The next section of the card entry, Ancestor’s Speak, is a more direct message about the meaning of your card. What I especially found helpful here was that these ancestors aren’t merely speaking at me – they’re asking questions to provoke me to stop, think, and meditate upon the meaning of the card.

Divinatory Meaning, the final section, encourages you to engage your senses and feelings related to the meaning of the card. Jade-Sky invites you to participate in an activity or pay attention to your environment in a particular way so that you can observe how you are responding in the present moment, or find ways of deepening your connection to the aspects of the world indicated by the card.

What I liked most about the interplay between the two sections (Ancestor’s Speak and Divinatory Meaning) is how one encourages you to listen and learn from the wisdom of the ancestors while the other is focused on spurring you to action – a harmonized blend of receptivity and activity.

Overall, this is an oracle deck I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. While some decks can be a little more niche or thematic such that they may not resonate with everyone, Ancestor Spirit Oracle Cards is truly universal because it speaks to the common element of anyone who might pick it up – our humanity. No matter where you live or your cultural heritage, this deck can help you connect to all people from across time and space. The more I use and contemplate the cards, and the deck as a whole, the more I see how wonderfully holistic it is, with every element of the deck playing a role in its unity.

Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi, by Bob Klein

Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi: How to make your life powerful and become a healer, by Bob Klein
Artistic Video, 189219869X, 428 pages, January 2021

Reading Bob Klein’s Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi: How to make your life powerful and become a healer was truly an epic voyage. At just over four hundred pages of pure text, this book is an ocean of experience and wisdom that can help the reader come to a deeper, harmonious resonance with themselves and, by extension, the rest of the world.

As Klein advises, simply reading this book cannot bring you the healing understanding indicated in the title. That can only be gained through an embodied practice. However, as a motivational aid and discussion of the fundamental principles of Tai-chi, his book is a perfect starting point for those (like myself) who are intellectually interested in the practice, but have yet to take the first physical steps on this path.

Klein presents a fascinating tour of the guiding principles of Tai-chi and zookinesis with a writing style that is both easy to comprehend and full of profound insight. His constant use of metaphor and analogy often grounds his exposition through humor, and allows him to clearly communicate ideas that might otherwise be quite “heady” and abstract. For instance he writes:

“The image you use to influence the body should be passive – like hitting a gong and letting the sound do the work of reaching everyone’s ear. . . Once you hit the gong, you don’t need to then run over to everyone and push them toward the dining room.”1

This style is a perfect reflection of one of Klein’s main points throughout the book: that modern human beings have become terribly divorced from embodied experience. Our awareness is all too often solely localized to our heads: our mind as opposed to our body.

Again, this is why reading the book isn’t ultimately going to impart the transformative knowledge that Klein talks about. Alongside the book, he recommends using videos (if not attending classes) to develop the expanded awareness necessary to heal oneself and the world.

However, Klein also notes that only taking classes or learning the Tai-chi forms may not yield this embodied awareness either, as he laments that many contemporary teachers possess only a shallow understanding of Tai-chi’s power. Similar to the typical yoga classes that you find nowadays, they are all form and no substance: simply an exercise for the body.

This is one of the main reasons why I found Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi so stimulating: it is a companion text to the practice which allows one to find the deeper power of Tai-chi when a suitable teacher/class isn’t available. In our time of remote/online classes – rather than traditional, in-person mentorship of the past – Klein’s book is perfect for marrying a purely form-based practice to the deeper wisdom of your “body-mind.”

This book is most definitely not an instruction manual for the Tai-chi forms, so if that’s your only interest, Klein’s book is probably not for you. Nor is it solely a discussion of the practice of Tai-chi itself. There is an incredible breadth to the topics in the book, and it often feels more like a spiritual treatise than a text about the practice. But this is in no way a bad thing, and is precisely the reason that the book is an ideal supplement for the physical practice of Tai-chi. 

The winding flow of Klein’s style carries you along from one topic to the next, weaving an integrated philosophical narrative while always bringing you back to the grounded, embodied discussion of the practice. If you are a reader who likes short, contained sections with lots of page-breaks and subject headers, you might have a little difficulty moving through this book. But I think that Klein’s way of writing perfectly reflects many of the principles that Tai-chi helps you to learn. The book itself exemplifies these ideas through its holistic presentation and through its demonstration of the interconnectedness of its various topics.

Sometimes you might get the sense that the text is a little repetitive, but I never found this to detract from the book. In fact, rather than being directly repetitive, I think it’s more that Klein takes you on circuitous detours in his exploration of a given topic. So, when he returns to the original point, this is what might give the impression of “I’ve been here before.” However, you have come back to the idea with new insights, metaphors, and explanations that were gained in the interim. I love the organic feel that this writing style lends to the book – it feels like Klein is guiding you through explorations of a living landscape rather than leading you down a dry, flat road.

Again, this reflects another principle emphasized by Tai-chi: awareness that is not one-dimensional. We are obsessed with linearity in the modern age: straight roads, squared-off architecture, rational/scientific modes of thought. While none of these might be “bad” per se, the accumulation of linearity in our lives gets us stuck outside the rhythms and patterns of Nature. Klein presents the intriguing point that flat walking surfaces, such as our floors and sidewalks, contributes to one’s awareness staying confined to the head, rather than being distributed throughout the whole body.

We don’t have to be aware of our environment (and can “get things done” in our minds) because the ground is so predictable – and yet, we might trip over the slightest imperfection. The unfortunate consequence is that, while convenient in some ways, traveling across linear ground removes us from being aware – being present – to the here and now.

Although many of the principles that Klein discusses will be familiar to those familiar with Taoism and other spiritual traditions originating in Asia, I think the aspects of Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi that sets it apart from other books are two-fold. First, Klein’s self-exemplary style – the form of the text is aligned with its content – and second, his emphasis on embodied practice rather than purely intellectual understanding. These two features allow this book to truly stand out as an enjoyable journey over Klein’s ocean of wisdom.

Artio and Artaois, by Andrew Anderson

Pagan Portals – Artio and Artaois: A Journey Toward the Celtic Bear Gods, by Andrew Anderson
Moon Books, 1789044626, 120 pages, July 2021

When I picked up Pagan Portals – Artio and Artaois: A Journey Toward the Celtic Bear Gods by Andrew Anderson, I really had no idea what the book would be like. This was my first time reading a book from the Pagan Portals series, so I didn’t know what I’d find inside. Mythology, spirituality, anthropology, history? It turns out this new book in this series hits all of those at once!

Anderson invites the reader to ride along on his intriguing journey to discover the identity and importance of this pair of Celtic bear deities. This pilgrimage begins as an investigation of a protective ursine spirit guarding his home and ends with the conclusion that this divine duo may be some of the eldest deities worshipped by mankind!

Anderson’s journey begins with a synchronicity: seeing Artio’s name and image in a social media post. This became significant soon after, when Anderson sent out a general plea for a higher power to help protect his home. He saw a vision of a great, spectral she-bear (later identified as Artio) standing guard above his house. Spurred by this spectacular manifestation, Anderson felt an immediate connection to this deity and decided to begin a pilgrimage of discovery to learn more about Her.

Initial research revealed precious little about the she-bear goddess, but Anderson followed the bear’s historical pawprints into mainland Europe: from Luxembourg to Germany to Switzerland. In Bern, Anderson found the most compelling piece of evidence: a sculpture dedicated to Artio amid a town with a long – and still-standing tradition of venerating bears. It was here where Anderson really begins to put the pieces together, using keen observation and insight to bring this investigation to life for the reader. His evocative description of Artio’s sculpture and meditation on the bear’s presence and energy drew me right in, as if personally introducing me to the goddess.

Anderson does brilliant work of incorporating research from other scholars into his discussion, but also uses their ideas as launching points for his own, perceptive insights about Artio. Regarding the sculpture in Bern – which includes not only the bear, but a tree and a woman holding a basket of fruit as well – he disagrees with many scholars that the tree is merely a symbol of the bear’s forest habitat. Anderson argues instead the tree has a deeper significance: there is a connection between it and the she-bear as symbols of rebirth. He writes:

“The tree is very stylized, not identifiable as any particular genus of tree and seems to have a somewhat phallic acorn pointing over the bear’s back. . . taken together, the bear, the human, the fruit and the tree present a powerful image of rebirth and plenty, a dedication to an extremely powerful protective mother. . .”1

One of the most surprising and fascinating sections of the book comes from mythological connections that Anderson investigates, particularly with regard to Artaois, Artio’s masculine counterpart. Continuing to trace the history of bear imagery into the United Kingdom, Anderson’s research suggests that past rulers associated themselves with bears in order to stylize themselves after the legendary King Arthur. Indeed, the characterization of Artaois seems to share many similarities with the great king: a protector of his people, a mighty warrior, and a craftsman. Even the linguistic connection between ‘Arthur’ and ‘artos,’ the Welsh root for “bear,” makes one think it’s quite likely that the spirit of Arthur has its root in the divine nature of the bear god.

I absolutely love this weaving of the spiritual and mythic worlds that Anderson presents. Although the question is left open as to how much the worship of Artaois influenced the tales of King Arthur – and Anderson thinks we should definitely not just conflate the two – the question itself invited me into the realm of archetypal thinking. I found myself engaged with questions of how our ancestors might have migrated over time from worshipping these ursine gods to idealizing a human figure, as both represent the positive qualities we desire from the masculine side of a great ruler.

These thoughts flowed right into the next chapter of the book, where Anderson takes what he has learned about Artio and Artaois and begins to search many other cultures of the world for the significance of bears. I was shocked to learn that bear worship – or, at the very least, sacred respect for these creatures – is among the most ancient forms of human reverence. Artio, the she-bear, may indeed be one of the most primordial representations of the Great Mother!

In the final chapters of the book, Anderson finds that even bears in popular media: such as the film, Brave, and the video game, Smite. I loved his inclusion of the contemporary media portrayal of bears, as it is very enticing for me to now go and look at these sources with fresh eyes, paying attention to how they capture the spirit of these ancient bear deities. And for those interested in taking up a spiritual practice focused on bears, Anderson provides several suggestions for creating your own rituals – including the ancient rite of the Bear Feast!

I highly recommend Artio and Artaois to anyone wishing to learn more about bears – not only the animals themselves, but also the relationship that humankind has had to these creatures throughout our history and beyond. It’s also important to note that bear populations have vastly declined in recent centuries, especially due to habitat destruction for human expansion. Throughout the book, Anderson firmly encourages the reader to consider our connection with these magnificent creatures so that we might help to restore them to a place of high honor and treat them with the reverence that our ancestors had once offered.