Veteran bookstore browsers of the NewAge/Spirituality aisle can be forgiven if they secretly roll their eyes a little whenever a new book hits the shelves. Many of these so-called self-help books (usually nowadays printed on recycled kale with gluten-free ink) are written by money-grubbing, ass-grabbing, self-proclaimed gurus, well-versed in spiritual buzzword bingo gobbledygook, and far more interested in their own narcissistic self-care and selling out seminars than with helping their fellow travelers do The Work.
JP Sears' Ultra Spiritual series takes the piss out of some of the larger targets, but the wide-eyed and unjaded still bounce from one spiritual fad to the next, quickly consuming and digesting the latest 'n greatest uncovered "secret" teachings with little or no forethought. Breathing this kind of rarefied spiritual air often leads to a certain lightheadedness in both student and teacher alike, and when meaningful change or a grand spiritual moment of Enlightenment doesn't happen after one week, the hapless seeker opens up their pocketbook to the next book, the next teacher, the next seminar.
So it's cause for celebration whenever someone brought up in an esoteric mystical tradition, with a solid background in depth psychology, and who's walked her talk a long hard mile — someone like Salt Spring's own Toko-pa Turner — publishes her debut book. And absolutely no one who knows her, or knows of her, was surprised by just how good the book actually is.
During the seven years Turner has lived on the island, she has focused the main part of her energy on her dreamwork Dream School — leading retreats, working with clients, and hosting online events. Her new book, "Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home," is the latest chapter in her decades-long career. It's a new vista on the work that has come before, a deeper widening of her teachings. And while the book is not about Turner's dreamwork per se, the book is peppered with examples of dreams from people she's worked with over the years, which are used to highlight the ideas expressed in the chapters. (You may find your own dreams flaring up into lucidity over the course of reading this book, as one reader did. This is a common occurrence; reading about dreams, or talking about them with others, is one way to trigger their lucidity and your ability to remember them.)
Turner's early life was harsh and hardscrabble by any measure, and filled with emotional turmoil and pain: family childhood conflict, suicidal by age eleven, a runaway by fourteen. She learned myriad survival skills from walking and sleeping on cold and dangerous streets, skills which do not serve a healthy, well-balanced person particularly well. So when she speaks of the burning misery of exile, or the longing for belonging which the outcast feels, she knows of what she speaks. Later, she would take the experience of those vulnerable and formative years and learn how to "become friendly with the terrors of loneliness and exclusion," and see how there was "medicine to be retrieved" from exile.
In a telephone interview shortly before the book's release, Turner explained how making the decision to leave a spiritual group that she belonged to several years ago became the main impetus for the book's genesis. This seems a not uncommon rite of passage these days: your guru starts going down in flames for one kind of sexual or financial misconduct reason or another, and you're faced with the challenge of either (a) drinking the tantric Kool-Aid of the true believer and hope it doesn't stain your soul too irreversibly, or (b) listening to your heart and having the courage to walk away, to leave your tight-knit group of spiritual friends and step out onto the road of banishment.
Turner listened to her heart, and a long period of illness and isolation followed. She ached for community, to belong. Her dreams during this time were very strong. One day, her journaling reached critical mass, and all at once she realized: Hey, I think I'm writing a book.
The Whirling Jungian
Turner defines the essence of her work as "restoring the feminine, reconciling paradox, and facilitating grief and ritual practice." It's a little like narrative therapy, a Gaia-imbued reframing in which she leverages her training in the depth psychology of Carl Jung and the teachings from her Sufi upbringing. The exile we feel from society, from others, that nagging lack of belonging: no matter the exterior circumstances, it's being generated from within. Don't like your life? Well, change your story. A simple concept perhaps, but far easier said than done, especially if you've been damaged early in life. Even one particularly traumatic experience or relationship in adulthood can be the cumulative camel's straw that throws you into a life of hurt and exile.
Turner had previously interned for three years at the Jung Foundation of Ontario, and her Jungian roots show: Job, Parsifal, the Hero's Journey, the Philosopher's Stone — the full cast of characters are all fully represented here in "Belonging." Most of Jung's works, in their original scientific vernacular, are a dense forest of psychological scientific lingo, and makes their reading a Hero's Journey unto itself. But Jung was not writing for the New York Times best-seller reader but rather for his contemporary fellow scientists of the psyche and a handful of high-brow intellectuals and writers. A few of his works are relatively accessible, but generally speaking, most "show the math," and are not recommended for readers who lose track of the thread in Nabokovian-length sentences which take for granted a Masters in Western Philosophy.
In Sufism, the esoteric teachings of Islam in which Turner is well-initiated, the longing for and connection to the Divine is central. This Divinity is referred to, particularly in the poems of Rumi, as the Beloved. When we nurture a loving relationship with the Divine — or, if you prefer, the perennial Ground of All Being —we are also nurturing a loving-kindness for ourselves, for our own personal sense of self, the Beloved of our own true nature. It's the ultimate inside-job. And while modernity has programmed and conditioned us to measure our self-image and happiness through social media likes, iPhones, or the complete season one DVD set of "Young Sheldon," you still need to do The Work in one form or another. Any attempt to heal the inner void of lack of self-worth in some roundabout fashion will be built on feet of clay.
"Too often, we fall into the misguided belief that the outside world is our source of vitality. We wait for its cues and its permissions and forget to honour, petition, and receive from the well within. Unconsciously, we're terrified to turn away from the world; we think we're putting our 'heads in the sand,' or that we'll lose everything if we don't keep pace. But the truth is that there is a different rhythm trying to temper us from within. If we shift our responsiveness from the outer to the inner world, allowing for a periodic ebbing of our external effectiveness, we come to see that it's in service to a more harmonious way with our own bodies and with our greater earthbody."
—Toko-pa Turner, from "Belonging"
Wisdom and teaching are two separate skill-sets, and few writers have been able to decipher the full, unabridged message of Jung's works for a general audience reader. But, like Coleman Bark's translations and writings on the great Sufi poet Rumi, or Rob Preece's insights into the connections between Tibetan Buddhism and Jung, Turner relaxes into the thesis of her Jung-Meets-Rumi mashup with great expertise and ease, which is why "Belonging" will rank high in popular non-academic Jungian-themed works for many years to come.
The genius of "Belonging" lies in its own alchemy, its mashing up of Jungian concepts of individuation and creative play with the ideas found in Rumi's most well-known poem, "The Guest House," in which he encourages you to resist the temptation to push away the so-called bad stuff of your life and allow it in. It's only after we gain this form of personal acceptance that we can truly belong to our lives and return from our exile of self. This acceptance is Rumi's key to devotion and healing, his pathway to inner peace and connection to the Divine, and the lines of similarity to Jung's Shadow work are thick and bold.
It's a long and difficult path to individuation, from separateness to belonging, and Turner offers no easy solutions. There are no chocolate-covered Buddha baubles here. No double-spacing, no extraneous white space, no "there there, there there" bunny hugs of woo-woo comfort. She lets us know, right off the bat, of the requisite "aptitude for grief" that The Work entails, and that bravery and courage are required. With chapter titles such as "The Death Mother," "The Dark Guests," and "Pain as Sacred Ally," you can rest assured that the reading road ahead will offer a lot of hard work — which, after years of snappy answers and quick fixes, can actually sound somewhat refreshing.
Turner encourages you to give up your allegiance to self-doubt and other limiting beliefs, guiding you to accept that "Disappointment is the secret teacher of devotion." Accept your pain and vulnerabilities. That lost sense of disorientation, that "ache to feel" in your life — accept it. Be vulnerable. Embrace your uncomfortableness. Don't anchor those uneasy feelings down into your subconscious with a plastered-on smile and an A.A. "It's all good" platitude. For one day, without fail, when you least expect it, these feelings will rear their ugly heads and bite you in the ass, like they've done so many times before.
The success of Turner's Jung-Rumi alchemy comes to life through the third element of her own personal experience — the homelessness, the years wandering in career desert, the debilitating illnesses. And herein lies the mastery of the book: her inspirational journey is the essential nature of "Belonging." She made it through. She lived these ideals. And that's exactly the kind of guide you want when exploring and discovering all the aspects of what Turner calls the "eco-system of our well-being."
Turning the Pages
At her book launch on a cold and rainy January Thursday night for a SRO library crowd, Turner filled the space with her soft-spoken, gentle demeanor, radiating an almost ethereal presence not unlike a lucid dream. Tall and lithe, she is a towering figure in the Gaia/feminine community, not just here on Salt Spring but throughout the world, and she certainly dresses the part; she's ready-made for a portrait sitting for the Empress card in a Tarot deck.
"Belonging" is not your typical step-by-step procedural New Age manual — The Six Secret Things This, The Five Keys To Something Something That —but rather is a collection of semi-free-form musings, a series of interconnected essays which lean on the style and format of the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue in terms of rhythm and pacing and the way the words look on the page. (Turner cites O'Donohue's influence in a few places.) Stylistically, Turner's writing is elegant, intelligent, and crisp, and is a true joy for lovers of the written word. Ideas are fleshed out in full, and never overstay their welcome or diminish their efficacy; there is little repetition or overstating. (A mini index would have been nice, for backreferencing; maybe in the next edition.)
Turner's client session work and seminars lean with a decidedly feminist slant, but her work is not gender exclusionary. It's fair to say that the book is cloaked in a feminine poncho, but "Belonging" is not a feminist manifesto by any stretch. Eros and Logos are both equally represented here, and the way in which she speaks of the love and dedication of her partner Craig is heartwarming and touching, a hopeful inspiration for the lovelorn in this swipe-and-tap hookup age of modern dating.
Nor does the work delve into gender politics. There's a nice, even back and forth with he/she pronoun usage, something 99% of men writers never do, and which serves as a subtle reminder to male readers of what the female reading experience is like, where the masculine pronoun is the de facto default, from "mankind" all the way down to "postman."
Once finished, "Belonging" is ripe for a re-read. It's the kind of book you can flip through to rediscover something previously read, or to spark new ideas that might be speaking to your life scenario at that particular moment. "Belonging" gives you plenty of ideas on how to develop your own personal route to wellness, in a creative "physician heal thyself" approach to getting your shit together, so you can have a greater acceptance of yourself and your shortcomings. In other words, it's the kind of book you can have a dialog with.
This Woman's Work
"Belonging" has a distinct Mother Nature tone, and will be properly Dewey decimaled under Gaia Philosophy (one of several Amazon categories under which it has held a number one spot since its release). One of the book's key strengths lies in its full expression of feminine energy and the feminine ideal; it's hard to think of another book that lays it all out so succinctly and clearly, and with such elegance in its prose.
Salt Spring has a vibrant community of neo-hippie divine feminine residents nestled in the Deep South, behind what Dave Phillips calls the "Tofu Curtain," dancing, smudging sage, and gathering together for full moon brewing ceremonies of raw cacao or other potent mixtures. Per capita, Salt Spring is right up there with Sedona and Marin County as a support network mecca for women — although the weight of the reigning patriarchy once you're off-island shows that real change is always measured with a one step forward, two steps back yardstick.
Turner makes the strong point that many people live under an umbrella of what she calls "false belonging." If you've ever denied or repressed a part of yourself, of your essential nature, just to fit in with the in-crowd, then you've created your own Self-imposed exile and moved into what she calls the "disassociation from the fullness of our being." The entertainment industry, corporate cubicle farms, the government sector — all of these are breeding grounds for the worst kind of false belonging. Eventually, false belonging can blow up into full-blown personality habits of repression and other types of psychological disorders.
The current revolutionary upending of sexually predatory behavior in these environments is a lucky topical synchronicity for the book's release, and may help propel it into a larger mainstream conversation. The portrayal of women in media is generally disgusting, and radical new viewpoints are, once again, long over due. The horrors of sex trafficking and other atrocities perpetuated against women in other parts of the world is a stain on the entire human species, and "Belonging" has the exact message and voice that urgently needs to be heard, at this exact moment.
"To restore the feminine in our lives we must follow where the energy wants to go. Like digging down into a bucket of ice cream, following the caramel ripple, the strength of our remembering gets fatter and sweeter the deeper we go."
—Toko-pa Turner, from "Belonging"
Shining Pearls of Wisdom
Toko-pa Turner's work is an industry onto itself, a well-oiled enterprise of high-quality web design and social media outreach, with a steady stream of online courseware, podcasts, daily affirmations, and personal video clips. The "Belonging" book launch coincided with a new podcast series Turner developed called Encounters, consisting of six, hour-long discussions with a select group of friends and mentors, and covering such topics as the Jungian aspects of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
Her content marketing is always unobtrusive, with high production values and usefulness. Her social numbers are quickly rounding the corner on the 100,000 mark, and her ongoing retreats sell out quickly. None of this is a fluke. Turner's overall success is a testament to the artesian well of truth that she has divined through the alchemic transformation of her life, and ensures that her hard-earned shining pearls of wisdom are as accessible and worthwhile as possible. The entire enterprise serves as a case study for other writers, artists, or teachers in the space, and they would be wise to copy the Toko-pa Methodology, without modification.
Turner embodies the full bloom and perfection of the Gaian ideal that's at the very heart of Salt Spring's DNA. "Belonging" is filled beyond its bindings with insights into creativity, sustainability, organic living, and community, and it resonates clear and true with the spirit of the island and its Gaia-religio vibe. It's also good medicine for the ailments of our times. These days, media of all forms revel in long discourses on the dark side of human nature, and seem to enjoy fueling the fires of discord and separation. As if life isn't hard enough. Few voices offer concrete solutions. Turner's is one such voice, and "Belonging" is exactly the book needed for our fearful and fragmented world.
We're all just walking each other home, as Ram Dass famously said. And it's hard to think of anyone better than Toko-pa to guide us through these difficult times. She made it. You can make it. The human race can make it. There's hope.
The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.