When Annie Lamott tells me I have to read something, I read it. She pressed her husband Neal Allen’s book SHAPES OF TRUTH into my hand and I was immediately fascinated. Neal has truly written a guide to transforming ourselves by paying attention to the body-forms that are inside of us, each one representing 35 different aspects of God within us.
I have tons of questions and I am delighted to have Neal here. (And hi, Annie!)
I always want to know how writers decide on writing a particular book. How they were almost haunted into writing it. Tell us your origin story!
I got dragged into this book, actually. Which is kind of how I look at life these days. The hippies and nicer people call it going with the flow. But sometimes it’s keel-hauling. Anyway, I had been in this lovely little cult in Berkeley under the tutelage of a very smart – like in physicist smart – guru, and he taught us about these peculiar shapes that we could find in our bodies if we looked hard enough. (It wasn’t really a cult. They didn’t take all my money and get mad when six or seven years later I quit. It was more like a crowd of very loving people who shared their complaints freely.) The peculiar shapes reminded me of something I had been forced to study in college – Plato – and I kept thinking about that after I had quit the group, which is known as Diamond Heart, which really sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? (I actually liked college and Plato.) So I emailed the guru, whose name is Hameed Ali, but who has written many books published now by Shambhala under the pen-name A.H. Almaas, and told him, “You should write a book about how you have rediscovered a corner of Platonism that seems to have been lost for 2,500 years.” He wrote back that yes, that would make a fine book, but he had other books to write. If I wanted to write such a book, he said, he would help me. Unfortunately, I owed him. His teachings had changed my life for the better, and so the book became my next project.
In its first draft, the book was erudite and even scholarly to a point. It was majorly about Platonism, Western philosophy, and the brilliant mind of Hameed Ali. Two publishers in a row thought better of that. Oddly, they wanted to sell more than three copies. After fuming and muttering about kowtowing to a READERSHIP, I wrote a very different book, which I’d like to think is both more accessible and not dumbed down.
Shapes of Truth is extraordinary. I’m sure you can explain the book far better than I can about how it is a simple, practical way to bring the divine into your life using body-forms. So please go ahead.
This is the part of me that drives my famously pithy wife crazy. “Why can’t you figure out a simple answer to that question, Neal, and STICK TO IT?” Let’s put it this way: Through a simple technique, you can open a kind of snow-globe inside your body, a cavity that temporarily displaces random organs, and inside it a simple form – blob, cube, sphere, whatever – with a color, shape, and density will show up and just sit there waiting to be inspected. There’s a universal catalog. Only thirty-five of these pure shapes exist. Your red sphere is the same as my red sphere. I call these things body-forms. Hameed Ali, their discoverer, refers to them as essential aspects. Aspects of what? God, I suppose, or Consciousness, or the divine, or even the core me. Atheists find the objects, too, the same way. If you look at these things enough times – it takes maybe a half hour on average each time – you start to believe that you’re actually made of this kind of stuff. It’s another way to question the nagging list-maker, the inner critic, who runs things and belittles me into thinking I’m just an empty personality who should be devoted to productive tasks like making money and doing the dishes.
Why wasn’t this transformative practice known before to the general public? Tell us how you discovered it—and also what discoveries did you make in the writing?
I didn’t discover the body-forms, which is probably a good
thing. If I had found them on my own I might have felt a need to keep them
precious, use them in the best possible way, and protect my discovery from
harm. I get to be more reckless, and just throw them out there. Hey, here’s
this cool, trippy thing. Check it out. Hameed Ali discovered them about
forty years ago, but his Diamond Heart program is a pretty closed mystery
school. It has rigor and purpose, unlike me, and so he didn’t see any reason to
popularize what he had discovered beyond his students. Then there’s the bigger
question whether Plato knew about the body-forms but hid them, and why they’ve
been lost for 2,500 years. Beats me. The only cognates that Hameed Ali and I
have found, looking around at various philosophical, metaphysical and religious
systems, are what are known as the lataif to the Sufi, who are the
mystical branch of Islam. But the lataif comprise only five, six, or
seven of the body-forms, depending on which Sufi author you read. Hameed Ali and
his two sidekicks are responsible for the discovery of the full catalog of
The book states: Not only do the embodied experiences provide wisdom; they also grant immediate and sustained relief from everyday suffering. Tell us how they do this?
Here’s the genius of these thirty-five peculiar interior objects. Each one corresponds to the inner support we have for a specific human suffering. Do you suffer from feeling stupid or weak? The red body-form has a way of telling you about your inner strength and discriminatory powers. Do you suffer from feeling unloved? The pink body-form reminds you of your goofy, loving inner five-year-old with her EZ Bake Oven. You’ve still got that simple love inside you; it’s just hidden under layers of sunglass-wearing, grim, serious, snarky adulthood. And if I can spend a few minutes with my embarrassingly well-loved pink self, I’ve given my thoughts time away from my cockroach boss who deserves Terminix.
I admit that as soon as I try to visual something (unless I am writing, then I am lost in the vivid world), my mind goes blank. I can FEEL things though, but I cannot see them in this way. Any words of wisdom to help me?
First you have to leave Hoboken and move to Marin County. It’s weirdly normal out here in Northern California to be woo-woo. But be warned that besides losing the fun of contempt and general irony shared by New Yorkers, you have to be willing to give up all that good-tasting food in the interest of perfect conformity with the earth gods by living on kale, roots, and fermented blecch. I know of which I talk here. I was a New Yorker type for nearly twenty-five of my adult years. (Tell your husband, Jeff, that I was there at Maxwell’s the night that J. Macsis and Ira Kaplan nearly got into a fistfight.)
The book describes a method for evoking a body-form that involves a second person, a friend or partner. With another person in the room directing questions, the method works about ninety-five percent of the time. Many of my clients are hard-core rationalists who have no experience with weird visualizations. Don’t ask me why this is so simple for people. It just is.
In chapter 18 you talk about how this can be true in a modern world full of physics, chemistry, science. You write that these body forms exist in their own realm. Is this also an act of faith, in a way?
My wife is a person of faith, no question. I’m more the type who believes in the truth of the experiences that I have engaged, at least those that were charged with an immediate sense of aliveness and wonder. Kirkus Reviews gave me a somewhat favorable notice, but the reviewer couldn’t get over the idea that I said these body-forms were accessible to atheists even as I called them aspects of God. The two ideas didn’t square for him, and I get that. I spent the first two thirds of my adult life as an atheist, and I started to experience these body-forms while still needing no God. Did they emerge from faith? Not particularly. Did they encourage faith? Maybe, I’m not sure. I’m still pretty drawn to the idea that there is nothing so ineffable that it is incapable of being articulated. That might obviate faith at least insofar as it’s supposed to take the place of knowledge.
So, I know you and your wife Annie Lamott trade pages, what is that like?
When we first met, I had read only one thing by Annie, an online essay about her experience with Match.com. Since we were meeting for a date through an offshoot of Match for decrepit old people, I read the essay for content – TIPS I MIGHT USE TO SEDUCE HER – not style. (She claims that I proceeded to tell her that the essay made me worry that she was frigid. I also made her cry. My seduction skills are clearly questionable. If you buy my book, the foreword by Annie details that first date.)
About a week into our going out together, we exchanged writings. We were on her couch, early evening. She handed me an essay that she was proud of. I gave her an unpublished short story. This was perhaps the scariest moment in what is now four and a half years together. I knew she was a popular author, which isn’t the same thing as a good writer. She didn’t know a thing about my writing, since I’d been a hack – suburban newspapers, supermarket tabloids, then corporate work in communications departments. Anybody can call herself a writer, which is a good thing. Creativity deserves to be democratic, and writers of any sort deserve to spend their time in creativity. But still, there’s a snobbery to people who grew up with a literary pantheon, which Annie and I both did. My parents had their careers as lawyer and urban planner but also were copy editor types who demanded the King’s English at the very least. Annie’s father was a New Yorker caliber book and essay writer. Annie and I both strove to be writers with a capital W. And we both knew that calling yourself a writer doesn’t mean you’re what we might call a good writer. So on that couch with her essay in my hands, it was a helluva relief when she passed the audition with flying colors, of course. (Telling this story later to an acquaintance, she looked at me aghast: “You were worried that ANNE LAMOTT might not be a good enough writer?”) And on that same sofa after reading my story Annie ACTED like I had passed, too. It wasn’t until a few days later when she asked me to edit something she had just drafted that I knew I was OK. One thing a good writer will not do is allow a bad writer to edit them.
In one way it’s easy for us to be each other’s first reader or editor. We trust the other’s judgment. Annie makes suggestions that I immediately reject and twenty-four hours later accept in full. She, on the other hand, agrees to most of my changes on the spot and sends off the piece an hour later. Neither of us touches the other’s diction or what some people call voice. Annie, for instance, can find a rhythm that allows for two examples in a secondary clause while I need a third for the clause to feel complete to me. She doesn’t cut my third and I don’t add to her two.
In the other way of being edited, what a sourpuss might call the psychological, emotional, insecure, beaten, or self-hating way, Annie and I have the same task with each other that any reader has with any low-esteemed writer, which is redundant. First remind the writer that he or she is brilliant and that the essay or book in question is important and real and fresh. Then say, “I just found some little bitty things, nothing crazy or too structural, and I can go through them with you if you’d like?” Or in the other case, “The writing is so funny and sharp, and clear, but I got hung up a little in this one place. Fortunately, it’s a simple switching of two sections, just a minor structural thing, no need for any rewriting. The words and ideas are all there, and as usual, are brilliant.”
And after pointing things out, go back to “brilliant.” It’s always the right word, like “cute” while shopping for clothes.
What is obsessing you now and why?
Our favorite detective shows to binge on are Scandinavian. The characters are very nice to each other. American TV characters are sarcastic and mean to each other constantly. And while British and French characters aren’t as nice in their downtime as Scandinavians, they’re kinder than American characters. We’re in the twenty-third season of Silent Witness, a British forensics series. We love Nikki, who is a very sincere person, and will be sad when she leaves our TV-mediated lives at the end of the next season. Also Thomas, Jack, and of course Clarissa.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about metaphor, and how I
might just be another metaphor, or really a container for a series of metaphors
interacting with the metaphors around me. I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist
texts lately, and the Middle Way – not too materialist and not too idealized –
seems to open up metaphor as a respectable version of real life.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
In how many different ways were the Beatles astounding?