Full disclosure: I was given a review copy of this book by Inner Traditions & David Chaim Smith.
I’m not crazy for philosophy for its own sake. Whether the formulations of a Kant or the volcanism of a Nietzsche, for every insight into how to live so as to experience Reality, there are at least ten parts of conceptual ballast seemingly custom-made to keep us in our mental cages. The same can be said to varying degrees of formal theology; everything we try to say about God is a potential pitfall we’ll need to leap to find Him. But when I read from, say, Frithjof Schuon—a metaphysician whose only philosophy and theology is in how the mind must interpret experience of the Subject—I see a bridge built over so many of these bear traps of mere reason. The mind is stilled and the intellect exalted by the scintillation which the writer was able to leave on the page. While there is no chance of leaving the whole experience for the reader to find, even a crust of bread may be enough to awaken hunger in one who has long forgotten their belly’s ache, or sustain one who has walked the path on very little food.
The occult world is nearly as barren as that of philosophy. Very few occultists have even an inkling of the marrow’s presence, let alone the tools necessary to break the bone to get at it. Different personalities require different tool kits; we each have unique gaps in our existing repertoire. Given that so much of Western occultism is built from the bricks of Kabbalah and the mortar of Alchemy, David Chaim Smith uses that language to fill in holes in the lore of occult theory and practice. Where occultism, being somewhere between religion and philosophy, finds itself so often bogged-down in dualism by default, Smith’s writing and art turn the same principles applied in the operations of sorcery to the task of nondual contemplation.
What I have read from Smith in the past has seemed to provide paths and keys to extremely specific gateways within the kabbalistic structure—essentially trails of breadcrumbs and details of an intimidatingly extensive map—while his newest The Awakening Ground: A Guide to Contemplative Mysticism is more a companion who walks just by the side of the aspirant. All of Smith’s writing and art is remarkable for the density of meaning which it contains, so a cursory reading will not be sufficient for most people. His is the twilight language of poetry, though wrapped in the packaging of occult philosophy and the imagery of Kabbalah.
The Awakening Ground is far closer to a “how-to” manual than we have seen before from this author. But, given that his audience are largely occultists and ritual magicians with some prior kabbalistic study under their belts, there is not much here which is friendly to the casual mindfulness junky or the trendy chaos magic crowd. If you are a magician looking for the Key to the Kingdom, tired of treading water with Crowley and his spawn, however, this may be just the thing you’ve been thirsting after; no hand-holding but a remarkably lucid presentation—including symbolic diagrams—of the beating heart of kabbalistic Yoga.
Like any book which plumbs such depths of a tradition’s actual application, The Awakening Ground is not for everyone. If your mental temperament requires a less structured model, Kabbalah in general probably isn’t for you. But for those whose every fiber thrums at sight of the Tree of Life while thirsting for the soma of Gnosis beyond all forms, David Chaim Smith’s The Awakening Ground is a guide you’ll be pulling off the shelf for refreshment for many years. Those same shining sparks one sees in the complex connections of Schuon’s metaphysics are present here in the windswept yet crystalline-clear architecture for the daring occultist truly looking to distill the quintessence from her Art.
As to the artifact itself, don’t expect one of Smith’s usual Fulgur Limited art books. It is a mass-produced hardcover with art book pages, closer to something from Taschen. This isn’t a complaint, though. The text is easy on the eyes and the artwork is crisp and well-shaded; you won’t have any trouble at all either reading it or making out the fine details of the diagrams and meditative pieces. In short, the book is a good quality for a mass market hardcover which befits its more practical contents.