What were all those 'spiritual' books?

In the previous article I mentioned the books on spirituality familiar to me from childhood.  These belonged to my father who would have collected them over a number of decades.  I remember these books well, having read most of them myself, at least in parts.  I still have some of them in my own collection.

Having been raised in the Anglican faith Dad was familiar with the Bible, but his interest in exploring spirituality more widely led him further afield.  While he did not dispute the Bible my understanding was that he considered its interpretation of the life and death of Jesus limited and in some parts incorrect.  During his explorations he read the thoughts and teachings of philosophers and spiritual adventurers from a wide variety of backgrounds.

In the wake of my own reassessment I have mixed feelings about these books.  I recognise them as one of the factors that caused me to be easily influenced by Teri, who drew much of her own thinking and therapeutic practices from these or similar sources.  This common ground led me to believe I was on much safer ground with her than turned out to be the case.  So it was with trepidation mingled with curiosity that I set out to do the background reading about these books which had fired my imagination so vividly and made such a lasting impression so early in my life.

Nowadays the term New Age is in common usage, and although it originated in the 1800s this common usage is relatively recent.  In the conservative society that was New Zealand in the 1960s the sorts of ideas associated with it were considered not only unusual but odd, and largely disapproved of.

My parents choice of vegetarianism, teetotalism and a generally abstemious life-style did not fit at all with the usual choices and attitudes of most other New Zealanders whose social activities very often included the consumption of meat and alcohol, and involvement in sport.  They were not interested in sport either.  Their interests lay more in the realms of the arts and sciences, and an appreciation of the natural world.  And then there was Dad's interest in spiritual and philosophical matters.  He meditated on the lawn under a tree each morning except when the weather was really inhospitable, in which case he meditated in the bedroom.  We were definitely an odd family.

As a child I felt this keenly but was always determinedly myself.  This could be described as character forming, I suppose, but for a naturally sensitive child it contributed to a life-long sense of struggling against the flow of what everyone else thought and did, and with it a certain level of defensive antipathy to others.  I didn't expect to be accepted socially and by and large I wasn't.  One of my teachers of my early years later described me as 'quaint'.

Alongside my childhood books, school work and child's play I delved into this other literature.  Some of it was more accessible than others:

I always loved "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramhansa Yogananda, the story of an Indian man who grew up to be a well-known teacher of a certain form of yoga.  I paid special attention the photographs of these kind-looking people in their simple flowing robes and wished I could grow up to be like them.  I still love this book although I haven't read it for years.  It's gentle and its tone good-natured.

There were other books about yoga on the shelf, the physical kind, and sometimes I would try to imitate the poses myself.  I wish I had had someone to laugh with about these because they really were extraordinary - contortions of the strenuous type - lotus positions and back bends which are impossible for most of us.  There was one which I was proud to be able to do, which made my tummy go into a strange shape, which no one else in the family could do.

"Man visible and invisible"  by Charles W. Leadbeater contained fascinating depictions of human auras indicative of different moods and personality types. The one depicting anger and malice was especially memorable, containing writhing coils in red and black.  I think this depiction may have influenced my father and others like him to avoid wearing these colours!  It certainly was a fearful sight.  The auras of people who were serene and spiritual were shown to be filled with delicate colours.  Each colour indicated different states and pre-occupations.  Listings on the Amazon.com site show that this book is still read and reviewed enthusiastically.  It was a forerunner of other books on this subject.

It was Leadbeater who "discovered" the young Jiddhu Krishnamurti, whom the Theosophists considered to be the potential new spiritual world leader.  The year was 1909 and Krishnamurti's family lived next to the Theosophical headquarters in Madras.  He was then fourteen years old.  In the Wikipedia article about Leadbeater a questionable side to his character comes to light with accusations of pederasty coming from a divergent set of boys.  Help!  Not the sort of person you would choose to send out in search of the new Messiah, or to oversee his tutelage, which is what he did for the young Krishnamurti.

For those who have an interest in reading more about the controversy surrounding Leadbeater I provide the link here to the Wikipedia discussion page.  Krishnamurti later very publicly broke away from the Theosophists and went on to be an independent thinker and teacher.  I came across his books later on and have great respect for him. 

Dad had a book by Rudolph Steiner the title of which is lost to me now.  I remember being delighted by an early chapter which described the patterns made in the air by butterflies in flight.  I've since tried to read his work but have found it somewhat heavy going.  However, I am pleased to have made this early acquaintance and greatly appreciate the contribution he made to thinking about organic farming, education, and the care of the disabled all those years ago.  He had been associated with the Theosophists, but separated from them after the introduction of Krishnamurti to the scene by Leadbeater and Annie Besant.  The movement he subsequently formed is known as Anthroposophy.

There was a row of books on the shelf by Murdo MacDonald-Bayne which I never took to.  He outlined health regimes and was also prescriptive about how you should think.  He was one of the early proponents of positive thinking.

I don't know how far my parents took the dietary advice, but they did go though various phases: in one of them the egg yolk was no good and you threw it away and in another you ate the yolk and threw away the white.  By the time I was old enough to remember this sort of thing neither regime featured at all.  Like any other form of dietary regime each was taken seriously, until the next one.  The vegetarianism stuck though, basically because my parents considered a carnivorous diet unethical, unattractive and unwholesome.  So do I, but we all have to make our own choices.

MacDonald-Bayne declared that if we lived according to his dictum there was no reason why we shouldn't all live greatly extended lives, if not forever.  This theme of greatly extending our lives is a common one in these books.  His narrative centres around his journeys to the Himalayas.  I have more recently heard that he never went to that part of the world, which is rather surprising, since he wrote about his travels there in such detail.  So far I have been unable to substantiate this point.  However I did find that he died of a heart attack at the age of 67.  So much for longevity.

A different series of books influential on me at that time was "Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Middle East" by Baird Spalding.   Like the books of Murdo MacDonald-Bayne these featured mysterious saintly beings of extraordinary age and astonishingly youthful appearance and exhorted readers to learn from them so that they could live likewise.  Unlike MacDonald-Bayne's books these were very easy to read.  If they had been fictional accounts they would have formed an early genre to do with spiritual adventure.  And I think that's the best way to view them - as fiction, or perhaps in the realm of parallel realities or maybe's.  In the introduction the author himself says he leaves it to the reader to decide if the content is a factual account...  While I believe he was entirely earnest in his way, I can't imagine what his motives could have been.  Like all those others who wrote these high-minded books about longevity and immortality he met a mortal end - at the age of eighty.

A common theme of many of these and other books was immortality.  Death was described as the back door to heaven.  Wouldn't we prefer to enter Heaven by the main entrance?  The idea was to so purify our bodies that they could be translated entirely into light.  Surely this is what is meant by Ascension.  And Jesus had shown us the way to what was possible for us all, or so they said.

Chief among those touting this goal that I came across was the I AM Activity a spiritual group based in America, with which my father was involved for a time.  As a child I found the whole set-up impressive: Dad held 'meetings' at our home twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  As children we were not permitted to attend, but I loved the music, which came on semi-transparent violet coloured vinyl LPs, and all the literature was printed in purple ink.  For a time Dad used violet ink in his fountain pen...  Reproductions of paintings which I found beautiful, showed the Ascended Masters with glorious flames of multi-coloured light around them and included special signs and symbols.

On our living room wall there were three special art works: one of Jesus, one of St Germain (in purple) and one of the I AM Magic Presence, which was an artists impression of a human accompanied by his or her Higher Self, which others might identify as a guardian angel.  This third depiction occupied the central position and was in vivid colour.  It had a majestic scenic background with mountains in the distance.  My brother-in-law later referred to this artwork as 'the man in the milk bottle' which was apt, with the Higher Self lodged rather like a cork in the top but surrounded impressively with a colourful rainbow-like aura and outpouring rays of light.  As a child I found it striking and rather beautiful.  As an adult I found it increasingly annoying and it was relegated to storage.  Over the years age and various corrosions both insect and chemical varieties have mostly destroyed it.  Like most earthly objects these things age and eventually pass back into dust.

After some years Dad moved on from the confines of this highly prescriptive teaching, so full of rules and prohibitions.  According to my mother he found it too limited, too prescriptive, but family friend Zelda, stayed with it until her death decades later.

The I AM movement was founded by Guy Ballard, later referred to as Godfre Ray King.  While I have discarded most of these books I have kept a few of them, "Unveiled Mysteries" being one of them.  It reminds me of powerful elements in my past which are part of who I am now even though I don't agree with them any more.  It's helpful to pick these books up from time to time and re-read them from this different perspective.  They're romantic and include powerful imagery.

In doing the research for this article I found that after Guy Ballard died there was a row within the order about the ascension business, and it was decided that this was figurative and to do with the journey of the soul, rather than the body...  This was news to me.

I wish now that Dad had talked about his move away from the I AM school of thought because it did leave me holding that crucible, rather too credulously, and I expect he was unaware of this.  In any case he was a busy man with an impossibly large number of commitments and a large family of argumentative teenagers to support.

He moved on to study Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and also had a long row of books by Maurice Nicoll which he often studied late into the night.  These were the various volumes of 'The Mark'.  I never got anywhere with them but remember them on the shelf.

There was also one by Edgar Cayce, which I did find absorbing, entitled "Edgar Cayce's story of the origin and destiny of man", which told the stories of Atlantis and ancient Egypt and much more besides.  I now see these stories as benign in tone but fantastical in content.

Annalee Skarin, the writer of "Ye are Gods", I detested.  She wrote about spiritual life and goals as if she had a gun to your head, marching you forward on The Path.  A very uncomfortable person, by the sound of it.  She too, was into the immortality lark.

Although I didn't take to Annalee at all, I did like Christine Mercie's little book "Sons of God" which I still have.  In it she claimed friendship with Annalee and related the story of her friend's mysterious disappearance in some detail.  Annalee's house, belongings and all her clothing were found apparently abandoned.  It seemed she had ascended taking her physical body with her if not her clothing.  In the above Wikipedia link I read that in fact Annalee wrote the Christine Mercie book herself and faked her own disappearance to boost the sales of her other books.  You can visit her grave in California.

It seems very strange and certainly ironic that significant elements of the stories related in these books purporting to be about the Truth with a capital T were either embellishments on real events or in some cases complete fabrications, and deliberately so.  While it could be argued that the truth has many layers and therefore perceptions about the truth can vary, the manner in which some of this material is put across invites the reader to infer a great deal which may not be true at all.  That seems unethical to me whichever layer of perception I look through.  It certainly can be seriously misleading and lead to distortions with far-reaching results.  Look what happened to me!

The authors of these books may have been writing with the following dictum in mind: never to let the truth stand in the way of a good story, even if it's about the truth!

This might well have been the maxim of the indefatigable Helena Blavatsky whose vast body of writings were formative in the minds of many prominent New Age writers and teachers for decades to come.  Her own life was punctuated by accusations of fraud and interpersonal conflicts of a dramatic order.  She was nothing if not theatrical, and her life story could be said to have launched a thousand writers, some of which must surely have been satirical.  (I can think of one such character, Princess Popoffski, in E.F. Benson's novel "Queen Lucia".  Benson's light pen effortlessly caricatures a raft of such personalities and attendant situations.)

While these individuals have died, the quest for longevity, immortality and transcendence from earthly constraints lives on and others have continued to write about such things.  Perhaps this is testimony to our fear of death and decay and our unwillingness to fully acknowledge that, like other earthly life forms, we are subject to such forces and not above them after all.

Not all of Dad's books were so extreme in content.  Much more down to earth and very easy to read was "A man called Peter" which Catherine Marshall wrote about her husband, a Presbyterian pastor.

Also in the Christian camp was C. S. Lewis, whose books on Christian thought have proved enduringly popular over the years.

"Dreams, Memories and Reflections" by Carl Jung  proved a good introduction to that great man's work and writings.

A long row of books by Laurens van der Post gave insight into a very different way of life and a thoughtful assessment of other cultures.  But oh dear: following the above link I read that one of his biographers wrote that not only had he very often merged his actual experiences with stories of his own devising, but that during a sea voyage from England to South Africa he fathered a child on a young teenage girl who was in his care.  Not only was this an criminal act but a serious instance of abuse.  Here again it would seem we have the imaginative blending of fact and fantasy written most convincingly as direct personal experience.  Van der Post's routine depiction of himself as a heroic figure casts these failings into deep shadow.

In a more cheerful vein Catherine Ponder became a lasting favourite, and although I didn't find her regimes of positive thinking all that successful her brisk, cheerful writing style always perked me up no end.  I didn't go for her millionaire series at all, but still have her two books on healing affirmations and prayer.  I've said some very scathing things about positive thinking as a healing technique elsewhere, but if reading a book of this sort makes you feel better, then that in itself is worthwhile, and fine as long as you don't take it too literally.

I've also kept "The Sufi Message", a series of books by Hazrat Inayat Khan.  It's beautiful to read and contains some very worthwhile material.  When looking for information about him I also found this biography at the Poet Seers site.

I can't imagine ever being able to write with such natural beauty as he did.  When I read these books it's like smelling roses of a literary variety.  I think he would have liked that since he believed that beauty was an important aspect of spiritual life, a point which the Sufi's acknowledge and which other spiritual paths seem to miss out.

After I had written a list of all the other books and gone away and looked them up, I remembered one more pair: Walter Russell and his wife Lao.  I must say that when I read the précis I shed some quiet tears.  I can understand how what they believed in and worked so hard for would have appealed to Dad: a fusion between spiritual practice and a modern science, guided over all by the science of love - for all others of all nations and all persuasions, no exceptions.  Here is a YouTube clip of Lao Russell being interviewed.  And here is a site which gives more detail about Walter Russell's philosophy.  Very idealistic, but also very admirable.

Dad died suddenly and without warning when I was still a teenager.  He was only 56, not much older than I am now.  So much for immortality.  His youth and what we had both read about longevity greatly added to my shock.  I was terribly shocked, for years.  I was left with the rows of books and my young adult life to work out.  I had no idea what to do.  None.

So it's not entirely surprising that some dozen or so years later, when I met Teri, that I was pleased to expect that she could help me with some of the the issues I'd been left with at that time, grief-stricken and unresolved.  I think this expectation was unconscious, but it certainly fits with what happened.

In the course of my preparatory reading I was surprised to find that the books mentioned here are all still available and avidly reviewed, the teachings eagerly followed, which goes to show that Dad's choice of reading matter wasn't as obscure as I had thought.  In fact it probably never was, except in the society we lived in at that time.

From this same reading I've also come to see more clearly how flawed we all are, and numbers of these writers particularly so.  The books in which they have so zealously expounded spiritual realities would seem to represent fragments of their own truths and parts of their individual quests for something greater than themselves, something beyond the physical world as we know it.  It's all a quest, not The Truth in itself.  Rest easy Dad, I begin to understand.

Postscript, 28th August 2011: 
It's been over a year since I wrote this article, the research for which was so helpful in freeing me up from the influence of the books mentioned.  Just recently I had occasion to go through a couple of boxes of books I had put away - and decided to burn one whole boxful.  There seemed no need to cart them around any longer or give house-room to them, even in the basement.  And certainly I no longer needed to hold the role of archivist or librarian for a collection of books that had caused me lasting harm.  The others I can give away or sell, but the ones I decided to burn I wanted to see the end of: their contents were distorted and misleading and for me the most responsible thing to do was to destroy them.  A number of these were from Dad's collection.

I remember Dad saying that there are too many books in the world already, and I agree.  As I sat by my sister's fire and fed the blaze she remarked that Dad would probably approve and I'm sure that's so, even though he had paid good money for his and been inspired by them for a time.  It was a good feeling, seeing them all blaze up before turning to ashes.  It took two evenings.  On the second evening, in one of those unaccountable coincidences that spring up from time to time, my sister and brother-in-law just happened to be watching a remarkable documentary entitled "Waste Land" - in which things of value and beauty eventually arise out of the most appalling acreage of rubbish in the world.  So be it!

Book shop links for interested NZ readers:
"Autobiography of a Yogi"
Fishpond.co.nz - other editions available - click on author link of this edition.
Autobiography of a Yogi: 1946-2006: Complete Edition

"Queen Lucia"
Fishpond.co.nz - this title is one of the novels contained in this most enjoyable omnibus edition of the series: (Other single title editions available)
Lucia Rising:

To go to the next article click this link:
Clairvoyance ~ or a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes"?


Simon said...

Was the butterflies-through-air pattern from a plate in Sensitive Chaos by Theodore Schwenk, rather than Steiner himself?

Simon said...

From my own impressions and memories of these and similar books, and from what I've experienced myself about how strong egos can deceive themselves and others, I'd say you're spot on with your assessments. I rejoice in your bonfire of all that fallacious spiritual claptrap, and mentally add my own copies of some of the above titles to it. True truth sets us free, false "truth" leads us into slavery. I walk around your fire and highly appreciate the warmth of the flames.

Leigh said...

I very much appreciate your contributions above, Simon, thank you! Let's both walk around the bonfire in celebration of its freeing effects. I like your comment about true and false 'Truth' and heartily agree.

Regarding the bit about the butterflies, my memory associates it with one of the Steiner books, the name of which still escapes me. Many 'Steiner' books were not written by him of course, possibly because his own writing style could be rather obscure!

My memory of 'Sensitive Chaos' is of a collection of very beautiful photographs of the natural world showing pattern we don't normally notice or wouldn't ordinarily be able to see. I don't remember the text at all.

ray said...

Lets hope much good arises from the ashes.....

ray said...

i wonder whether there is such a thing as Truth at all.....

Leigh said...

Thank you for your comments, Ray, always valued. It depends on how you look at it I suppose. The way I see it, and in context of the above, some 'truth' is simply self-serving and invites others to bow down to one; other truths contain helpful insight into the greater workings of the strange and wonderful universe we live in. I suspect that most is a mixture of the two.