White Crane Journal #53 Summer 2002
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Altered States: A conversation with Rudy Ballentine
about Tantra and Altered States of Being Agnes Dei
POETRY: Transformations Ron Madson Every Breath You Take Stephen McDonnell Ecstatic Dance Balance Janeson
Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths by Andrew Calimach Steven LaVigne
Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America By Brad Gooch Steve Bolerjack
Editor's Note: Seeds of Change
In the interest of full disclosure, I tell you this writer has traveled to the Amazon to drink the musky tea of the ayahuasca vine and drunk San Pedro cactus in the ruins of Machu Pichu under a full moon. I confess to many LSD trips, one of which ended with my consciousness being altered by being beaten bloody by seven cops. And, while these days my mind alterations are of a more caffeinated variety, the subject of altered states of mind in spiritual quest is near and dear to me personally and one that raises many questions.
Perhaps no subject other than sex itself is bound to conjure as much discussion, if not outright controversy, as drug use and abuse. For some, there is no difference between the two. Yet for many cultures and people and centuries the use of certain plants, drugs, as well as other forms of consciousness alteration, have a long, rich and honorable history.
Indeed, as has been noted on this page before when White Crane Journal explored the spiritual facets of food, the late Terrence McKenna posited that the discovery and use of the mind-altering amanita muscaria mushroom, among other plants, might very well explain the "missing link" in the development of the human race. His work in Food of the Gods and his exploration of the mysterious Indo-European "soma" culture, among others, builds a persuasive case for the important role of "hallucination" and ecstasy (Greek ek stasis, to stand outside, but also ex stasis, to break out of the static, to flow) in the development of human culture and might explain the leap of intelligence that occurred in the species.
What exactly are we to make of the Bible that spawned the three warring Abrahamic traditions when it tells of the ingestion of "the fruit of the tree of knowledge" and how it lead to the downfall of man? What, upon the consumption of that forbidden fruit, did it mean to "discover that we are naked" and why was that a matter of shame? And why was it an apple? Or was it a pomegranite?
The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. Henry Miller
Mushrooms, poppies, desert cacti and jungle vines, tobacco and grapes, even honey have all been sources of substances humankind has used to attempt to alter awareness. How important is set and setting to the effectiveness of such substances? Is it just coincidence, for example, that the sacred plant of western religion (the grape and the alcohol derived from it) causes so much pain and suffering for the North American aboriginal, while the American Indian's sacred tobacco reacts so carcinogenically in Europeans?
Not that drugs, or entheogens (a term coined by R. Gordon Wasson referring to the felt presence of indwelling divinity experienced under the influence of psilocybin originally) are the only sources of altered states of mind. The Bible tells tales of fasts and journeys of forty days and forty nights in desert wilderness, while Native American and other aboriginal cultures have ordeals involving days of deprivation and physical hardship all in search of sacred vision. Yogis famously levitate and inhale and exhale back and forth across the thin veil of life and death, through the power of meditation, riding on a breath.
In many cultures, the dreaming world is every bit as real as the waking and much attention is paid to the messages and images received there. Exercise, sex and crisis are all said to cause the production of chemicals in our bodies that change our consciousness.
And yet, in western society these altered states of mind, particularly the ones induced by the ingestion of entheogens, to say nothing of the vision quest, have fallen into disfavor and disrepute. Why? Is it only ascetic, puritanical attitudes and the western dichotomy of spirit and the flesh? Is it further evidence--and the necessary outcome--of the on-going estrangement of man from Nature? Where does a modern person find vision?
With this issue, we asked contributor readers to explore their own experiences with altered states of mind and we are particularly pleased to present the writings of Ralph Metzner and a fascinating interview with tantra teacher Rudy Ballentine.
As I sit here writing, my consciousness is being altered by the constant throb of a toothache that I should have taken care of weeks ago. . . I'm hoping that the medication I've just taken will shortly alter that reality a little bit more and when it does, maybe I can get some sleep and I'll dream. Which of those states of mind is real and which is being altered is all a matter of perspective. Illness, drugs, breathing, fasting, sex... all are methods in which individuals have engaged in the millennial old quest to alter consciousness to take a peek into peak experience.
As usual, with the limitations of time and space we have only been able to scratch the surface of the subject with this issue. Nothing can alter that. But we hope this issue may plant a seed for further thoughtful discussion.
New York City
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A conversation with Rudy Ballentine
about Tantra and Altered States of Being
Rudy Ballentine is a holistic physician, past president of the Himalayan Institute (Yoga) for many years and author or co-author of books on nutrition, meditation, breathwork, yoga and psychotherapy and of the recent Radical Healing, Integrating the World's Great Therapeutic Traditions to Create a New Transformative Medicine. He studied for 20 years with a Tantric master, and leads workshops on Tantric sexuality for men with men through the Body Electric School. He has four children and lives in New York City.
Agnes Dei is a bodyworker, musician, and radical faerie, living simply in Pittsburgh with his lover Jimmi. Together they cook, garden, sing silly songs and enjoy bringing touch to the lives of their brothers, lovers and friends. Agnes' mundane name is Timothy Kocher-Hillmer.
Agnes Dei: What attracted you to this topic of altered states?
Rudy Ballentine: I'd have to say that my ulterior motive is to talk about Tantra. The philosophy, the approach, of Tantra is the idea that it's a doorway to other worlds. I'll have to step back and say a little about my feelings about the term "altered states." And my feelings have changed over the years. There was a time when I felt comfortable with it, in fact I used to use it more. Now I feel like it's a little parochial. I mean, what is the normal state that's being altered? Why are these variations of consciousness called "altered"? It's sort of like the term alternative medicine. Well, which is the alternative? In view of the fact that over 100,000 people a year die from taking conventional medications, properly prescribed and taken in proper dose, in the hospital. Wouldn't it make sense to start by using safer options like herbal remedies or homeopathy and if that didn't work, then resort to the alternatives like antibiotics?
There's a certain implication in using this term that indicates the everyday consciousness that we're so often immersed in is the "real" one. In the Yoga and Tantric tradition there's a prayer you say before you teach, which is: "Lead us from darkness to light. Lead us from unreality to reality." At our retreat center, people would be returning to New York saying "We have to get back to the real world." My teacher would say, "That's the real world?" Are you kidding? So, I just want to say that up front. I'm not comfortable using the term "altered" states.
AD: Well, what other term is used in the tradition of Tantra? How else might this be spoken of?
RB: I'm not sure this is specific to Tantric philosophy. It is certainly part of Indian thought in general. There is a Upanishad called the Mandukyo Upanishad. It talks about the movement from everyday waking consciousness into what we might equate with a dream consciousness, where we become aware of images and archetypes and mythical figures. It's the sort of consciousness we are in when we dream. It is also a consciousness that is accessible when we're not asleep, which we might enter in certain ritual space or in storytelling or meditation. The Mandukyo Upanishad talks about moving from everyday waking consciousness into that consciousness, then from that consciousness into the sort of consciousness that is really more about swirls of energy and experiencing energy movement. It doesn't even have images. That, according to the writings, is where we go when we're in dreamless sleep. It is also a place where people who are trained as shamans go (or others at depths in whatever the tradition) in healing, or in ritual space, or in sexual ecstasy. In this state there's this feel of energy flowing and a kind of immersion in the intensity of sensation: an opening into the power of that world.
So, those we might call "altered" states. But what's interesting, and the reason I brought it up, is that when the Upanishads were written several thousand years ago, it became the subject of a number of commentaries. Now, they're published with all these layers of commentaries, each coming 500 to 1000 years later. Over time, you begin to see these commentaries talk about everyday waking consciousness as reality. But the original writing talked about reality as being the deeper or energy awareness. The everyday waking consciousness was considered an experience of distraction, even delusion. So, they've gotten reversed and here we are in this period where we consider everyday waking consciousness as "normal."
Part of the Tantric work, I believe, is to harness the power (and not all Tantric work uses sexuality). But when it's Tantric Sex part of the goal is to harness the energy and learn to enter the world of that energy, then to begin to stand at a place where that wouldn't seem like an altered state.
AD: A couple of things strike me. First about the way history and human thought have done that reversal. How we've considered what is real or altered. Then, what also is interesting: as you first started describing this, the word you used was movement from everyday consciousness into a dream consciousness and then into a further physical understanding of the swirls and movement of energy. What strikes me is that you used the word "movement" in two ways.
RB: Yeah. The movement. . .I'm subject to the same problems. I don't even know that "movement" is the right word. I don't even know whether you need to move. That's a kind of spatial concept. We have these time and space concepts that are really part of this third dimensional everyday waking consciousness world. And then we tend to impose them on other worlds. That's how, I think, we distort them and make them less accessible. Because we're trying to make them more like this or that. I see how much of that I do myself and I'm trying to find how to step around that. Again this is all spatial stuff. What's present in those "other" worlds is really here all the time, ready to be plugged into. It's not like you have to go somewhere, but that's how we think of it and I'm no exception.
AD: It seems to me we need to be re-learning this whole process and its terminology.
RB: Definitely, definitely!
AD: Would you be willing to share your first experience of entering that world of energy in terms of sexual Tantra? How did you find yourself in that place?
RB: That's a good question. It's sort of interesting because I didn't know that I was being taught Tantra. I just knew that my teacher was giving me instructions about all kinds of things: Foods, my body. How to sit for meditation. How to have sex. It was just one more thing on the list. The concept of not ejaculating and then directing that energy, well, all these things were about managing energy in my life. At that time I was married to a woman. So, I just brought that to our sexual connection. I began to discover, by contacting the energy and moving it with the breath, that it expanded something in my head. The point I really became aware of this we were on a sort of second honeymoon and were in bed. I began to realize that if we kept doing this it felt to me as if my head were going to blow off. I thought, oh my god, I don't know whether this is a good idea or not. But I was certainly aware of the power (and not in a theoretical way) in a very experiential, personal and immediate way. I felt, "I'm playing with something immensely bigger than me. And I have to pay attention."
I think that's the experience I remember most vividly. After my marriage ended and I began to explore my interest in connecting intimately with men, I brought that training along with me. I didn't really know where I could make such connections. So, I looked for listings that advertised erotic massage. I decided to go. And I'd say "I want erotic massage, but I don't want to ejaculate," and they'd look at me like I was from some other planet. I'd be very embarrassed and would just want to leave, you know? Until I happened upon this guy who, when I said that to him (and I waited for his reaction), told me "Oh, that's what I do." "Who taught you this?" I asked. And he told me about Body Electric, which was the beginning of my connection with them.
AD: That brings up a question. This experience is just the opposite of what we've been taught. I want to share this with a brother, lover or friend, without feeling embarrassed or apologetic. How can I share this with another man without "breaking the mood" by having to explain what I'm talking about? Any comments?
RB: I was just talking with Don Shewey about the big gay men's health summit in Boulder, where I led a workshop two years ago. I was very frustrated. It seemed nobody would talk about this. They're all talking about grants for money for AIDS and medications. And I'm ready to scream because I feel like the real issue for health in gay men is to get in touch with your mission. What did you come into this world to do? Not that it's the same for everybody, but what is your role here? What is your agenda for this lifetime. Gay men and women most often come with some sort of special offering that grows out of the fact that they're not identified in the same way as the population at large. It gives you a different kind of perspective, or fluidity, or distance, or ability to see. As the Native Americans used to say, "those who walk between worlds." This is an incredibly privileged place and it's also a difficult place in which to live. But it brings the opportunity to offer something that's really extraordinary, which is often what the world needs. Especially right now, gay people, transsexual people, lesbians, bisexuals. . .all of us who are not "normal" are the ones who bring something fresh. This can be tremendously important and I think it's a contribution to the spiritual development of the planet.
What I'm trying to get at is that we come with this to offer. And we somehow get distracted, or because of social pressures our self-concept becomes so damaged and condemned, and we aren't in touch with our agenda, the purpose we came here for. Then, of course, our health is going to collapse. We come here with a physical body that is designed for our mission. We're issued this vehicle on the basis of the agenda we filed for this lifetime. The body is designed to live the life that we're coming to live. If we don't live that life, the vehicle begins to rust and doesn't work, and health collapses. So, I was ranting and raving about this health summit, saying I hesitated to speak next time. So, I think that, well what was the question? I forgot what you asked.
AD: Well, you're actually following through with the heart of my question. It's like we've been intentionally given this "altered state" of being queer. I guess maybe my question really was about how we continue to honestly access that state.
RB: And how do we get people to collaborate with us in going there?
AD: Yes! Yes!
RB: I think this is the issue: that we're so distracted by what seems like this huge hurdle of owning who we are. And we need to do this in order to consciously and deliberately enter into that world that is accessible to us. Even though society says it's impossible. But, like the Flirtations sing in that wonderful song, "We're gonna do it anyway!" I think that is the true spirit of those who walk between worlds. That's the power and dignity of the gay person's role. In order to really take that on fully, we have to go consciously into the experience of sexuality and the energy of sexuality and the power of that. We need to explore that, and play there, and discover stuff, things that probably nobody ever has. Well, definitely not in the way we're doing it, because we're doing something new. We're bringing our intellectual, critical faculty. On, the downside this can certainly distract us, taking us away from entering the worlds of imagery, archetypes, and swirls of energy. Yet, at the same time, if we can bring it with us, it helps clarify. This is a great asset if we don't let it overwhelm us. This is the incredible possibility we have today. Queer people have this unprecedented opportunity to explore these worlds and meld with them to create a whole new world.
AD: Let me ask this. Before I met you in person, I met you on the pages of "Radical Healing." Having finished it three months ago, it still feels like I'm in an "altered" state of being. Can an "altered state" (for lack of a better word) be permanent? And how do we do this as queer folk? Can we make a permanent shift? Does this make any sense?
RB: Yeah, and that's when I think we really begin to give up this idea of "altered" states and we begin to regard it as home. It's not a place we visit, it's a place we live. Tantric tradition and Indian thought is leading modern philosophy and thought in this way. This idea that there's something beyond the serial experience. Instead of experiencing these "altered" states sequentially, we can hold the experience of them all transparently; at once, in the present. In the moment I can be in that experience of energy. I can be in that awareness of archetypes and imagery. I can also be in the fullest possession of my critical faculties. They all coexist in this present moment. When this happens (and we're all moving toward this and glimpsing at moments) we create additional or "new" states. This is an integral state, integral consciousness. One aspect of this is that when we do this, we are outside time, space and causality. These terms are characteristics of "normal" everyday waking consciousness and don't operate in this sphere of energy. Here you don't make something happen, it just happens. You can allow it to happen. So, causality isn't a part of that. And it's beyond time. And it's not a spatial thing.
The implications of this are very large because it means we can do things we have considered not possible. As we do this, the whole way we exist on the planet changes because we've shifted. What we've thought was important, isn't. Time ceases to constrain our lives. From the point of view of Tantra, time is something we've created. We can be in it or we don't have to.
Here we see the sort of consciousness considered "normal" is not particularly up to the tasks that we need it to perform. We can learn to set it aside and move into a larger, more encompassing consciousness. It's a whole way of thinking, as you said, that we're called to begin to move into. This is what spiritual teachers have been talking about for millennia. We can, by this sharpened intellect, make this state accessible to more people. This is part of the huge shift that is happening on this planet. And queer people, people who walk between worlds, have a huge contribution to help facilitate this shift.
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Hunger When I dreamed This is not about desire but Love My nostrils whetted with carnal perfumes You held out your arms This is not about action but Peace My skin savoring still embraces Standing face to face This is not about happiness but Joy Eyes consumed with knowing I placed my wrists upon yours This is not about passion but Bliss Our tongues imbibing beyond reason Letting your tattooed Om's touch me This is not about mystery but Light Oh! . . . Intoxicated summered stars Whispering, "Let the oneness of our souls be known to us." This is about being beyond names and forms Atman S A T I A T E D For now
Ron Madson is a retired New York City art teacher who lives in Brooklyn.
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Every Breath You Take
Life is filled with pain and suffering. There are many approaches to this pain and suffering, some more acceptable than others, some less destructive to the human person than others. One most common and readily available means to escape is alcohol and drugs; perhaps another is fantasy. Other addictions could be added to this list. There are also acceptable, common avoidances such as religion and work and sheer daydreaming.
In my own personal history, I have become more and more willing to face pain and suffering directly, with less escape and fantasy. As I have matured and grown wiser and I have explored ways toward this approach that would be less destructive than alcohol and drugs to my body and soul I have used many forms of spirituality and psychotherapy toward this end. It was not however until I discovered Holotropic Breathwork that I began to understand a deeper reason why to alter one's consciousness.
Holotropic Breathwork, which has similarities with other similar practices including rebirthing and some forms of meditation, uses breath to alter one's consciousness. Holotropic means "moving toward wholeness" from the Greek holos and trepein "moving in the direction of something." It is safe and natural. Done in a safe community, with experienced and certified practitioners, it allows one to explore, heal, integrate one's personal biography, including that which is dark, shadowy and traumatic, and which might well be from past lifetimes or at least in cellular memory, as well as that which is transpersonal and transhistorical.
Again, Breathwork is best done in a community and with trained facilitators. One typically gathers into a group of about 10 with two facilitators for an all-day Saturday workshop. After everyone introduces himself or herself and safety is established, the breathwork can begin. Participants are paired into "breather" and "sitter." Sitters act as caretakers for any needs that the breathers might have, always and only at the request of the breathers. This way, breathers can get unconditional love, with respect for their boundaries, sometimes for the first time in their lives. The directions given by the facilitators for holotropic breathing are simple: to follow the breath, perhaps to breathe a little faster and deeper than normal. One simplistic explanation for the effects of this breathing is that this kind of breathing creates a change in brain chemistry. The science behind this breathing and breathwork is found in the works of Stanislav Grof, MD. This breathing also takes place in the context of a group, with evocative music. These help facilitate the changes in brain chemistry and expanded consciousness, which seem more difficult to achieve when one is alone. Also having the safety of a sitter and facilitators allows one to have anything on the physical plane attended to, as well as the containment to explore dark and frightening parts of the psyche should this occur during the session and if one chooses to explore them.
Breathwork can help heal the biographical trauma some of us have experienced in our early development, including sexual and physical abuse, deprivation, as well as shame and homophobia, as well as the human trauma that most of us experienced in the stages of birthing. Breathers lie on mats, perhaps with eyeshades. The directions are quite simple, "to go with the breath." Loud, percussive, specially designed course of music is played. Participants breathe, enter their altered states, move as they chose, request what they need on the physical plane, including bodywork from the facilitators. Being in community helps this process. And this context for altered states is safe: one is always fully conscious of the present, and can simply return to an alert and grounded present by opening one's eyes and breathing normally. After about three hours, participants return to full consciousness, and are invited to draw a mandala, to help for later understanding and remembering of the process, which similar to a dream is often multilayered and forgotten. After nourishment, the roles are reversed for the sitter to become the breather. The very-full day ends with processing the experience.
For the science of Holotropic Breathwork, read the book by the founder, Stanislav Grof, MD, The Holotropic Mind: The Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape the Mind.Grof's website is http://www.holotropic.com.
The pioneering facilitator in the New York area, Oliver Williams, can be found at http://www.journeywork.net
For myself, after experiencing Holotropic Breathwork, I came more deeply to understand all the other forms of spirituality and psychotherapy that I had been practicing for many years, which were leading to healing and recovery and integration of my body, mind & spirit, including addictions and recovery, meditation and spiritual ecstasy, bodywork and ritual. Holotropic Breathwork has become an important component of my journey and life.
And I came to an answer why altered states. We seek such an altered state such as breathwork can provide to come to higher consciousness. Such a journey out of ourselves is truly into ourselves. This kind of out-of-body experience is truly an into-body experience. Rather than fantasy and dissociation and dreaming, we become more awake. We become more present. We achieve a Higher and Deeper Consciousness. We become more ecstatic, but again, in our bodies. We also become awe and wonder struck, grateful, delighted and joyful, respectful and compassionate.
Stephen McDonnell, M.Div., LICSW, CAC is a psychotherapist, addictions and trauma specialist, spiritual director and community organizer who lives and works in the metro D.C. area, helping others heal and integrate their body, mind & spirit. E-mail: SMcDonnell703@aol.com
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When I contemplated the writing of this article, I felt drawn to describing my movement into and out of the ecstatic state in which I find myself when I dance. The ease with which I find myself moving from one reality to another, particularly through the medium of dance, is sometimes startling, even after a twenty year practice.
I recall recently attending a social dance function. The performing group was comprised of women who were singing eastern European folk songs. At one point while dancing, I found myself in a state of ecstatic revelry. I wasn't really intending anything other than enjoying myself. However, I recall another dancer coming up to me while I was in this ecstatic state. I don't really recall anything about the person, until she spoke. When I heard the words, that's when the snap happened. I was unmistakably jolted back to this reality. The shock of the return was rather unpleasant.
Questions filled my mind. Did this other person recognize that although my physical body was "here", my consciousness was somewhere else? What is the role of intention in pursuing ecstatic states? What are the layers of my practice? To do some discovery, I set aside some time to do the following exploration: My conscious intention was to initiate movement into an altered state, follow the messages I received, and remember enough to write about it!
I smoked ganja, one of my usual methods for opening an initial door. I prepared a massage oil with essential oils of patchouli, Iberian sage, rosemary, and black pepper; rather warming, but also grounding with the patchouli. I strode naked out into the north woods, through the labyrinth of the north altar, and onward. I found myself at a spot near the northeast corner of the sanctuary. An area beckoned.
I faced the east to begin my dance of the directions. One of my basic frameworks for moving into an altered state is first to inhabit my body through a meditative dance, then to honor the elements, the directions, and to invoke my spirit guides. My practice honors the four cardinal directions plus center. I am also beginning to incorporate elements of my shamanic journeying with elements of my Tantric masturbation practice. I begin honoring the east by massaging the oil into my hands, inhaling the aroma. A dance begins, invoking air not with words but through movemeant both physical and energetic. The dance honors the sunrise, spring, things aerial. My hands connecting my genitals up through the chakras to my third eye. My qi gong practice seemingly guiding this journey from a place of deep knowing, my "heaven's gate" or crown chakra releasing upward to receive.
The dance moves my facing southward. More oil is massaged between my hands, then onto my cock, balls, and buttocks. I dance to invoke fire. To honor the snake of transformation, to honor my patroness, Pele of the Volcanoes through whom I have learned much about myself. The passions rising as I massage both cock and anus, breathing into ecstasy I find myself using a fire breath borrowed from my yoga practice. The feeling is more than that of ejaculation. Instead of the intensity of the experience feeling confined to my genitals, it spreads inward through my cock and well, "injaculates." Instead of semen pouring out, my focus draws the energy inward through my cock into my root chakra, up my chakras and outward through my entire body. My heart chakra seems to resonate with an incredible vibration. My whole body is on fire.
I find myself facing west. More oil. I'm drawn to massage my belly. Drawn into the depths of feeling, I honor water. I honor flow. The burning ecstasy eases into a cool flow that dances in curves and loops and spirals and falls and swells. I honor and release my feelings that flow with the ebbing tides. I honor my feelings of connection to the moon. I feel the warmth of the sun on my back and I know the meaning of yin and yang without thinking, but simply through the feeling. I bend forward to warm the kidneys, and reaching downward, my anus reaches upward. I find myself massaging my anus and exposing my own dark side, my hidden nature to the light. Because, essentially, they are but the same, different phases of the same eternal flow. Tai Ji. Tao.
As I move to the north, I massage oil from my feet, up my legs to my cock and balls. I release my hands to my sides as I stand to honor and call upon my ancestors. I feel the pride and humility welling forth, as a spring from within the rocks. I find renewed strength in my connection to the earth. I feel the energies of nature around me. Rocks, trees, the mountains, animals of all sorts. I sense my ancestor guides encircling me. With this enhanced connection to the earth, to all my ancestors, they bid me to spin.
I begin spinning. I spin with an inward awareness, calling to center. And just as easily, my awareness begins to reach outward--out, out, out. I find myself seated in the loose, dry dirt. I begin pawing the dirt all over me, I begin to roll in the dirt, realizing the dirt will protect me from the sun and the bugs. I realize my feline spirit guide is moving through me.
I gather my belongings and head onward. I find myself drawn here and there across the sanctuary to the several groves of artemesia trilobata or "big sage," a powerful herbal. I am then drawn to an area of the sanctuary, one in which I have not spent much time. I am drawn to a clearing, and realize I will be moving my hermitage camp to this new site. Co-creating new relationships with elementals and nature spirits of all sorts!
I pass the east altar, then another sage grove, the south altar to the pond. I swim, cleansing away the dirt, the process, the return to the everyday reality is seemingly instantaneous. I question if I'll remember enough to tell a story.
Upon reflection, I realize there's much not told, after all, some things are called mystery for a reason!
Balance Gregory Janeson is a steward at Zuni Mountain Sanctuary. He likes to garden, libracess (something of a Libran approach to processing and obsessing) and masturmeditate (a masturbatory approach to meditation or is it a meditative approach to masturbation?). His continuing connection to dance seems to be moving him to pursue continued studies in dance and altered states of consciousness. He also created the graphic that adorns this article.
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Reviews and Books
Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths
Restored and retold by Andrew Calimach
Haiduk Press, 179 pages, hardcover
Reviewed by Steven LaVigne
There's a scene in Maurice, E. M. Forster's posthumous novel about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, where he's in a Cambridge tutorial with other students. The professor refers to the Myth of Ganymede as the "unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Alas, this seems to be the overall atmosphere surrounding the gay content of the world's oldest literature.
The legacy of different mythologies have guided our understanding of history and culture. It's influenced storytellers since time immortal. Richard Wagner, for example, used Norse mythology to create his epic opera cycle, The Ring of the Nebulungs. Shakespeare, Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton are among those who've tried placing classic mythology into perspective. The genius of Hollywood special effects, Ray Harryhausen created unforgettable mythological images for such films as The Seven Voyages of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. The gay content, that "unspeakable vice of the Greeks," seems to have escaped all of these artists. Now, with his book, Lovers' Legends: the Gay Greek Myths, Andrew Calimach has returned the gay aspects of traditional Greek mythology to their rightful place, and placed them in a modern perspective.
Framed by passages from "Different Loves," Lucian's ancient debate between Theomnestus, a straight nobleman and his friend, Lycinus, and illustrated with photos of classical statues and reliefs, Lovers' Legends is easily the most impressive volume of its sort. Among the myriad of topics, Calimach addresses is the development of the Olympic games based on the legend of Tantalus. With Pelops as his protagonist, Calimach extends and develops this legend, including his experiences with Laius and Goldenhorse, into a fully realized classic drama. He finds the truths in the tales of Zeus and his favorite male lover, Ganymede, and Zeus' mortal son, Hercules, the hero who loved the handsome Hylas. Through Calimach's immaculate research, we learn that before he met Eurydice, Orpheus, playing his lyre, serenaded the Argonauts. It's only after his disobedience leaving the underworld that we learn about Zeus' plans to punish Jason and Medea. We also learn that Orpheus was beheaded and that head was buried by the men who lived on Lesbos. The myths of Apollo and Hyacinthus, Narcissus, Achilles and Patroclus.
Something else, however, sets Lovers' Legends apart from previous volumes of mythology. That's Calimach's remarkably fresh, yet easygoing storytelling abilities which makes this one of the most entertaining reads you could ask for.
Lovers' Legends is available from Haidukpress.com
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Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America
By Brad Gooch
Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, $25
Reviewed by Steve Bolerjack
Throughout history, the immensely varied and extreme ways in which civilizations, churches, cults and individuals have presumed to interpret whatever they perceive as deity suggests a religious belief spectrum vastly wider than the furthest right and left points on the political compass. Comparisons between say, Islamic fundamentalism and Ahknaton's sun worship make the gaps between republicans and democrats or even communists and fascists seem positively narrow and folksy. Mankind's powers of belief synthesis have never soared higher than when the subject is religion.
This staggering diversity of belief systems and worship practices is the subject of Brad Gooch's Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America, a necessarily small sampling of the ways in which selected people and groups believe they have found (indeed, what even to call It?) spiritual truth, infinity, ultimateness or simply. . .God. Gooch possesses an intellectual curiosity about spiritual matters that seems to remain from his youthful explorations into everything from Trappist monasticism to Jewish mysticism. Avoiding already-well-covered traditional religions such as Catholicism, Judaism and Protestantism, he delves into five distinct, dissimilar and lesser-known religious belief systems that could probably co-exist only in an American pluralist society.
By far the most bizarre and therefore interesting belief system Gooch covers (it's difficult to know how to term some of these subjects &endash; neither "religion," "cult," "denomination," "creed," or even "theology" seems adequate or even appropriate with some) is based on something called The Urantia Book, a previously little-known hodge-podge work of supposedly celestial origin that enjoyed near-cult status in Chicago in the early 20th century. It eventually found its way into 1960s California hippie culture, 1980s New Age trendiness, and even may have been a factor in the truly outlandish Heaven's Gate cult, whose members committed mass suicide in 1997, believing that in doing so, they would somehow join a UFO supposedly hovering behind the then-visible Hale-Bopp comet. Gooch provides excerpts from The Urantia Book that shows it to be one of the most original and dense pseudo-religious works ever written. Yet it's also one of the downright strangest. Its celestial authors are previously unknown beings that seem more alien than angel-like. I was reminded of the elegant and benevolent Valar of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but the Urantians are apparently a much bigger deal, running a whole host of universes, not just our piddly one of a mere 12 or 13 billion years of age. According to Urantianism, the many universes are a kind of mega-mega cosmological corporation, managed by numerous teams of ethereal officers who move as easily between unseen dimensions as they do from door-to-door. Yet within this melange of para-theology with its ancient-sounding mysticism and neo-science fiction is a thread of homespun Christian Sunday School-ism, with several chapters of the book entitled "The Jesus Papers."
It would be easy to write a book that pokes fun at such obscure and eccentric religiosity. But Gooch carefully avoids satire or lampooning. Instead he delves into each subject as not only a researcher or reporter, but as an active participant. In the case of the Urantians, he attended numerous sessions in which believers read portions of The Urantia Book and earnestly discuss them. Far from comprising a collection of oddballs and losers, Gooch shows with in-depth interviews and quotations, that these are mainstream people (including the founder of Celestial Seasonings) who have come to this particular belief system with sincere and good faith intentions, via many paths and for many reasons.
Gooch follows this procedure with his other almost unwieldy subjects. His visits to several Trappist monasteries across the country reveal a somewhat obscure subset of Roman Catholicism that has flourished since the 19th century. Americans may be surprised to learn that a nearly medieval way of religious life persists in rural pockets here and there (although some aspects of that too are slipping away as many monasteries set up websites, host retreats and market various commercial products).
The long chapter on monasticism is particularly fascinating as it deals with issues surrounding gay priests, particularly several who chose the monastic life. As a gay man who was clearly drawn to this at one time, Gooch delves into their rationales, their compromises and even their sufferings as some monks &endash; either successfully or not &endash; attempt to reconcile their homosexuality with seemingly condemnatory church doctrine. Yet it isn't sexual conflict or frustration that emerges as the most salient factor, it's the difficulty nearly every monk has with the requirement of obedience, a quality that is not particularly prized in 21st century secular America. Another is the nature of the contemplative life, and why one would choose to devote oneself to it. Whether straight or gay, pious or apathetic, the reader will encounter aspects of religious belief systems and practices that are rarely discussed anymore in a secular society.
Closer to home, Gooch also looks at what can now be called "gay and lesbian theology" as institutionalized in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). He describes the improbable intersection of MCC, Jerry Falwell, The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas and architect Philip Johnson. The chapter culminates with a review of the anti-gay Falwell's "summit meeting" with his former speechwriter-turned-minister, the late-to-come-out Mel White and a group of 200 Christian gay men and lesbians. Having covered this summit in a 1999 column for The New York Blade, I feel Gooch is far too easy on Falwell, a bigot and hypocrite who not only blamed gay people in part for the September 11 attacks, but has also done incalculable damage to many vulnerable gay men and lesbians with his judgmental vitriol. It's one instance in the book I'd like to have seen Gooch make more fun of his subjects.
Godtalk also covers, less effectively, the rise of swamis, gurus and yogis in relation to eastern religions and mysticism, and concludes with a description of post-September 11 Islam in New York City. Compared with the Urantians and gay theology, these belief systems seem dour and depressing, and less in keeping with Gooch's theme of the outré.
My only real complaint with Godtalk is that it lacks a final analysis or summation on how people come to such offbeat religious beliefs. Is there a common thread or characteristic in human nature that has led us to such a wild variety of ways to reach supposedly the same destination? What's lacking in mainstream religions that lead to these extremes? And why do we have dozens of religions and possibly thousands of denominations, sects and creeds? Still a good read can leave you with compelling questions. Perhaps I feel a sequel coming on.
Steve Bolerjack is a former columnist for The New York Blade and The Washington Blade. He is a regular contributor to POZ and Pride, and has written for Genre and numerous other gay and mainstream publications.
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Link to Toby Johnson's GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness Last update June 21, 2002