Creativity and Spiritual India

Articles

The Glories of Non-Renaissance Art

Vasudeva mathura

This is a fresco from a temple in India. The temple is in Varsana, in the Vrindavana area, the place where the goddess Srimati Radhika is said to have grown up, during her pastimes in this world. Yesterday I spent some time with a group of friends, there in the temple, discussing this piece of art.  The intriguing aspects of this fresco are so many, the discussion it provoked so lively, that I am compelled to present my perspective, for posterity. I will try my best to do this in language resembling that found in art history books, with a few weird breaks from that form.

Ahem.

An overiew

Firstly, and overview of what is occurring. This painting shows Vasudeva Maharaja carrying the child Krishna across the Yamuna, from Mathura to Vrindavana. He did this to bring Krishna beyond the reach of the cruel Kamsa, lest that tyrannical king should smash the baby, as he did many others before. In the upper right, Krishna is appearing to Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. He manifested initially in the form of four-handed Narayana, before transforming into Baby Krishna, at the request of Devaki. It’s a deep and intricate pastimes, and here we (I?) am just touching on it. Below that, Kamsa is shown smashing one of Vasudeva and Devaki’s previous children. On the left are Vasudeva and Devaki praying, or possibly Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda awaiting the arrival of Krishna, as one local sadhu asserted.

Subjective size

First of all, the relative size of the people and things in the painting is completely relative to their importance to this instance of the pastime. Western figurative art tends to mimic the camera (well, the laws of perspective preceded the camera). Western abstract art is, in this author’s humble opinion, mostly terrible, and not worth writing about.

But what we see in this painting is different. Compared to what a camera sees, it is completely wonky. Vasudeva is taller than a building. A palace isn’t much taller than Nanda Baba would be if he were standing. But the entirety of the pastime could not be conveyed in one frame if the artist limited themselves by imitating a camera’s view. Instead, the size of the elements is relative to their importance. Vasudeva carrying Krishna is what this picture is mainly about, therefore they are the largest. The palaces are just there to give context, so they’re small. The personalities inside the castles are important (but not as important as Vasudeva Maharaja) so they are quite large. The trees and so on are also there for context, so they’re small, whereas the jackal upstream from Vasudeva is large (it showed him where he could cross). This is all absurd from the point of view of visual perspective, but that’s what’s so great about it.

Temporal dispersion within a single instance (not a bad section title, eh?)

Furthermore, not all the events in this painting took place at the same time. Kamsa is shown killing a baby on the right, something he did previous to Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna river. Narayana is shown appearing to Vasudeva and Devaki, which happened earlier that night. On the left hand side, one local sadhu told us, Vasudeva and Devaki are shown praying, before the birth. I’ve seen a picture of Lord Rama where He crosses the Ganges River. In one picture, He is shown there with Sita and Lakshan on one bank, and on a boat in the middle, and offering respects to a sage on the far side. It was a bit like if someone shot pictures with a camera for an hour or, then put everything they capture into one frame. Except very different from what a camera sees, but that we covered.

So in this one picture of Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna River, we have events happening at different times, and size relative to importance.

Intriguing stuff. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.


In defense of Religion and Science.

“Instead of branding people according to which camp they’re in and which flag they’re waving, it’s far better to look at underlying motives.”

This week I’m pausing the scene-of-the-week series. I’ve been thinking about religion and science, and how too often we get caught up in pitting one against the other, as if they are natural enemies, or as if one is totally false and the other is a virtuous savior. Really that’s all bollocks.

Science Fish

Listen here: 

They’re wars, not religious wars

There is a popular saying, that most wars and death go on in the name of religion. This is often put forward by proponents of strict rationalism and its brainchild, science.

This is not true in two ways.

People usually kill each other for land, money and power. The two world wars were not religious wars. Stalin and Chairman Mao’s attacks on their own people were not religious wars. Taken together, these make up most deaths in the twentieth century. So statistically, at least in recent times, most violent deaths have not taken place in religious wars.

Secondly, wars that go on in the name of religion are generally not actually founded in the teachings of the religions in question. The Bible never advocated the Inquisition or the Crusades, nor the genocide that took place in the Americas. These were all done in the name of the Bible and  Christ, but if you look deeper you’ll find that was just a false front. Christ taught his followers to love their neighbors, not to enslave and exploit them, to take their land and replace their spiritual sites with your own. Actually the underlying reasons for these conquests was greed, and the desire for self-aggrandizement. Religion was just a front, not the cause.

Science wars?

On the other hand, a religious person might turn the tables on science and say, “Hey! You claim that so much damage has been done by religion, and that science is progressive and helpful, but science has done far more damage than religion ever has. Guns, the atomic bomb, nuclear plant disasters, plastic clogging the oceans, chemicals poisoning our rivers, greenhouse gasses heating the planet—these are all byproducts of science, not religion. Wars between humans are nothing compared to rendering the entire planet less habitable.”

But again, if you look deeper, you’ll find that the cause of these things is not science. Science is the study of that which lies within the realm of the senses or the extensions of the senses. Based on discoveries made during these investigations, various technologies can be made. These can be helpful or harmful, both in their manufacture and their use. Thus far, we see a mix. Science has produced medicines to save millions of lives, and weapons to kill just as many. The wheel and fire are also scientific discoveries, not just nuclear bombs and plastic, so even the foremost Luddite can’t write science off completely. However, most of the gadgets produced today—androids and tablets and wireless ear-pieces—are unnecessary and very harmful to the environment in their production. What is real progress? Is it the advancement of our immediate convenience, or our capacity to understand, love and give? Too often, the underlying motive for scientific progress is also greed.

Therefore let us not criticize religion or science. They each have their jurisdictions, and it’s not helpful to falsely pit them against each other. Instead of branding people according to which camp they’re in and which flag they’re waving, it’s far better to look at underlying motives.

 

Thanks for listening. Next week we’ll get back to our scene-of-the-week series.

If you want to see what I can do with a deep story, pick up  my novel here, Fire from the Overworld. It is the story of two young mystics who fight to restore balance in their desert village, when war erupts among its spirit rulers. Feel free to sign up for the new scenes in your mailbox each week, along with guest posts, and my thoughts about living, loving, investigation and creation. 

This work is licensed Creative Commons, attribution, which means you can use it however you want, even commercially. Just let people know which bits came from me. Thanks!

 


The big ones, or how I got knocked out

Balloon racing by Les Chatfield

 

I’m going to take a break from the scene-of-the-week to tell you about the first time that got knocked out.

(Listen below)

 

I had the experience of looking back at all the major points in my life simultaneously. Actually there are not so many as you might think. Birth is obviously a big one. There were a couple in my childhood from 6 to 12 years old that stand out. A lot of things happened in between these big events, of course, but not unexpected stuff. Learning to eat, sort of eventually. Learning to walk, then run.

The first time I rode a bike without training wheels was a big one. My mom and dad pushed me off, me sitting there on the bike. I flew forward, pedaling hard, and I felt like I was flying around that parking lot, almost empty of cars.

Speaking of two wheeled vehicles, I remember going on a ride which was, in retrospect, extremely dangerous. I was to drive a miniature motorcycle in hoops around a thick plastic sphere, going up, upside down, down, round the bottom, up again… I only made it to the top once before running out of momentum. The motorcycle fell down on top of me, knocking me unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at the world from a new angle of vision, and I couldn’t remember the transition, how I got there. That was the first time I ever got knocked out. These events are like bubbles fixed to the string of my life. In each bubble the memory plays out in a seamless loop, changing a little each time.

You can listen to this being read to you here:

audio mp3=”https://btlowry.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/the-big-ones.mp3″%5D%5B/audio%5D

 

Or to download it, right click here and choose ‘save link as’

Next week we’ll start again the Scene-of-the-Week series.

Each week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section. 🙂


Five Main Events

Five by woodleywonderworks

Five by woodleywonderworks

 

 

(Listen below)

We’re taking a break from the scene-of-the-week series to take do a little retrospection.

I look back at the main events in my life. There are five, really. Birth, obviously. Adolescence as a whole. My first real relationship. Joining the temple, and leaving the temple. That’s it.

I wonder, if one or the other of these events had been different or had not taken place, who I would be now. Of course, some of them really can’t be removed, like birth and adolescence. But they could have happened very differently.

Birth is huge. It’s the starting point of our life, and we come in with momentum. A rocket launched eastward may turn and go northward, but not so easily as one which was launched northward to begin with. The starting trajectory of a person’s life is the angle at which they come into the world, and this affects the entire course of their lives. Of course, the choices we make in our life also change who we are, but if I were born into very different circumstances, I reckon I’d be a very different person today.

Why is a person born into her particular life? This is, if not one of the main philosophical questions that have been asked by different schools throughout the ages, certainly one of their assistants. Science would generally have us believe that we are products of physical evolution, that our selves as we know them now—our bodies, that is, and maybe minds as well, depending on who you ask—are the result of many, many years of iteratively evolving genetics.

This is, of course, not the only idea on the subject. Many people believe that the circumstances of our birth—including our parents, the stability of our country or lack thereof, our talents, our personalities, our capacities, our economic levels, and all other obvious and not-so-obvious trappings and attributes that we may possess—have carried over into this life from the one before. All these different kinds of momentum, they say, are carried in a subtle body, which surrounds and accompanies the conscious self from life to life. While this is all quite far out, it does explain a lot of differences between us all, which are attributed to chance by the former school of thought, without further explanation.

You can listen to this being read to you here:

 

Or to download it, right click here and choose ‘save link as’

Come back next week to get the next scene of the week, the first of those in the new round. You can say in the comments which scene you’d like to see made into a short story.

 


New lands and old home

CC Hartwig HKD

CC Hartwig HKD

 

There is tension in spiritual life. If I am to progress from being semi-aware to fully aware, I must face conflict, internal and external. My goal may be a state of peace, but the journey will hold challenges. One such challenge is the conflict between progress and familiarity.

I’m amazed by the endless vista before me, a limitless realm of possible conscious states, progressing up to the source of all things. And yet, like a sailor clinging to the rocks of his own shore, I am reluctant to disembark.

New lands and my old home. The wide sky and comforting ground.

States of consciousness

My home, in this context, is the consciousness that I’m accustomed to. It is now filled with family and friends, with ideas that I’ve been cultivating for years. I have a particular understanding of reality and illusion. But these things are in flux, with new elements coming and old ones going. My understanding changes. My company changes. Is there anything that is intrinsic to my very being, which will remain? if I am to progress, everything must be laid on the table and questioned.

Yet I am afraid to do it.

I recently finished my first book , Fire from the Overworld. It is a Visionary Fantasy novel, set in an alternate world. I don’t wish to toot my own horn here, but because these themes run throughout the book, I’d like to speak of it here.

Two kinds of journeys

A sketch of the story for you: two apprentice mystics live in a desert village. The girl is Yuvali and the boy is Héyowan. Both face the conflict between progress and safety in different ways.

Yuvali travels from her body, and gradually enters higher dimensions. This thrills her and she thinks she can go on forever, but to do so she must leave her old conceptions of self. She must leave attachment to her father, her mother, her village, and her body.

The other main character, Héyowan, can enter a the mind of a person or animal as though stepping into a cave. He experiences their thoughts and feelings as though they were his own. He can move into their deepest centers, to see their glowing hearts. It is a great intimacy that is possible even with enemies. He finds himself mixing with them, forgetting himself. He strives to protect the sanctity of his own identity, even while trying to help others, but often he fails.

Kinds of enlightenment

Years ago, I enjoyed reading Siddhartha (by Hermann Hesse) and The Red Lion (by Maria Szepes). I consider them to be part of the Visionary Fantasy genre. They inspired me to write more, and yet in both cases I was dissatisfied with the climax, with the point of ‘enlightenment’ of the main characters. In both books, the characters realized that everything in the universe is undifferentiated, and that they are part of that whole. When I read the books, I thought, ‘Well that’s all right. But there must be an actual center to things, not just a diffuse oneness.’ (I’m paraphrasing. I think I was not so eloquent.) This is my conviction, and along with the Vedic teachings, it has inspired the cosmology of my story.

Now, I won’t tell you whether Yuvali and Héyowan are able to reconcile all these things, so that they can make spiritual progress and also help their people, but I invite you to find out for yourself!

They say art is never finished, and I agree. Nonetheless, I’m satisfied with how the story has turned out. It’s definitely been a journey for me. As I grew near to the themes and characters, I learned about myself. I hope you do too; in your reading, writing and spiritual life.

 

Next week, I’ll be starting a new series called, ‘Scene a week.’ Every week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section. Sound like fun?

 


Song of the Sea film review

 

I am a sucker for beautiful films. Don’t get me wrong; gritty stories, which tell it like it is from the trenches, also pull me in, and if the story doesn’t acknowledge the darker side of life at all, it usually seems cheesy.

But I love stories that show me the beauty and innocence in life, which weave a thread binding real life and myth–the conscious and the unconscious.

I recently watched the film, ‘Song of the Sea,’ written and directed by Tomm Moore, who also gave us ‘The Secret of Kells.’ It’s about a boy’s journey from being mean to being a good brother. It’s about a girl coming to know and accept her inner, secret self. It shows that the mundane world in which we move about is not the only world. The people we see in cities and towns are only some of the beings in existence. Part metaphor, part Irish myth, yet set in the modern day, this film reminds of something a great teacher of bhakti-yoga said, Srila BR Sridhar Maharaja, that the world we perceive with our senses is just like the cream on top of an ocean of milk. There is so much more beneath the surface.

The artwork is gorgeous, with watercolor backgrounds and intricate patterns everywhere. The design of the characters is based on simple shapes– circles, triangles, squares and so on. The simple basis of the art makes the innovations all the more pleasing.

There are no enemies in this film’s story. Everyone is doing what they do for their own reasons, no one is wrong. Everyone is redeemed and it feels real, not corny.

Magical rules

Brandon Sanderson has some interesting thoughts about magical rules.

He speaks about a continuum of magic systems ranging from soft to hard. A soft magic system is mysterious. Its specific rules– if there are any– are unknown to the reader. An example is Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ What can and can’t he do, exactly? No one knows. The upside of this is that it gives the story a sense of mystery. The potential downside is that if characters use the magic to solve major problems, it seems like a copout.

A hard magic system is more ‘physical,’ in the sense that the reader understands its specific limitations. Superheroes are examples of this: Superman can fly, has laser vision, speed, strength etc. Wolverine can heal really quickly, has claws etc. If Wolverine could suddenly fly, we’d feel like someone pulled a fast one on us.

The magic system in ‘Song of the Sea’ is soft, but we get a general idea of what the characters are capable of, and no one suddenly becomes super powerful. But actually the rules are evident, but they are not physical rules. The magic is limited and liberated by the choices of the characters. As they make key choices the world around them unlocks. I’ll say no more. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.


Everything is STORY

diversity

Photo: People from all over the world coming together for unusual and diverse spiritual, cultural and personal reasons

Here’s a question for all you thinkers out there: is there anything at all which cannot be contained in a story?

I say no, and here’s my case.

All types of people can populate stories

Characters can be theists, atheists, violent, philosophical, young at heart but old of body, young of body but old of heart, proud, humble, talented, foolish… you name it. The variety of people out there in the world and universe is the same as the potential variety of characters.

All knowledge can be contained in stories and characters

There are stories about math, arts, engineering, space travel, astrology, astronomy, mysticism and folklore… Indeed, the evolution and devolution of these subjects over time is also a grand story.

All places both real and imaginary can be settings in stories

You can set a story anywhere on earth, or under it, or in the oceans or in the air, or a combination of all of these. A story can take place between planets, on other planets, in a black hole, in an alternate dimension, or in a place transcendental to all dimensions.

We swim through stories all our lives

The newspaper is a collection of stories, with characters, settings and events. When we ask a friend, “How was your day?” their answer will be a story. Even if they just reply, “It was good,” or “It was bad,” that still tells us something about or friend and what they’re really going through. That’s part of their expression within a larger story. Our guesses about what’s really happening with them are stories.

Stories aren’t all fictional, but they’re all subjective

What?! How can real stories be subjective? Well, because they’re experienced by subjects–by people. A person’s personal experience, as well as their retelling of events will always be from their point of view. Someone may be rational and truthful, or may not even tell events according to their own experience. But we’re all subjects, and so whatever we experience is subjective. We’re in stories and we tell stories. It’s what we do. All fictional stories are based on real-life stories, even the really far-out ones. We don’t really create anything new–that’s my understanding. We recombine ideas in amazing ways.

There are stories everywhere, but in some places they’re denser

I’m in West Bengal now, in the village of Nabadwip by the river Ganges. I’m staying with some of my god-family who run a school for underprivileged kids. I’m learning a bit about how the different kids came to the school here. We’re working on a video series, with spotlights on a different child each month. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime I’ll say that their stories are both extremely tragic and extremely hopeful.

Comparing tapestries

I spend a lot of time in India, and for some years have been going back and forth between India and England, in particular. Now there are stories in England too, but not like in India. I think of stories like threads in a tapestry. England has its tapestry, with its colors and density of strands. There is the history of the British Empire, there’s Christianity, there’s science. There is medieval England, and the pagans and druids in the ancient past. So there’s some great, diverse stuff going on. There’s no doubt about it. Canada has its story, the United States has its story. All places do, and they’re amazing.

Then you come to India. It’s also a tapestry of stories–of lives weaving together–but it’s extremely dense and colorful, and parts of it are very, very ancient. Here’s a short story I wrote, about reincarnation, poverty and brother-sister love.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way about India. Check this out:

A Rough Guide to India: “It is impossible not to be astonished by India. Nowhere on Earth does humanity present itself in such a dizzying, creative burst of cultures and religions, races and tongues. Enriched by successive waves of migration and marauders from distant lands, every one of them left an indelible imprint which was absorbed into the Indian way of life. Every aspect of the country presents itself on a massive, exaggerated scale, worthy in comparison only to the superlative mountains that overshadow it. It is this variety which provides a breathtaking ensemble for experiences that is uniquely Indian. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than to be indifferent to India would be to describe or understand India completely.”

It’s a land of extremes. Extreme wealth and poverty. Extreme depravity and saintliness, horror and beauty. Schools of thought which aim at total annihilation of the self, and others which aim at realization of one’s spiritual form and eternal relationship with a personal Godhead. There’s a history going back–depending on who’s story you take–thousands or millions of years.

Keith Bellows, National Geographic Society : “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”

Stories stories stories!

Here in India, you might meet a man in a loin cloth with no shoes, living in the mountains. He’s studied computer programming in Bangalore, but left that to become a yogi. His grandfather practiced yoga for decades and, at the time of his death, his soul left his body out the top of his head with a small explosion.

One of the kids here in the school was separated from his mother for a long time by an abusive father. He become very introverted, but with the care of the teachers he’s become an excellent actor and helps all the other kids learn. His family are refugees from a war in Bangladesh which took place before his birth. It was, ostensibly, a religious war, but seems to have been more about land and power, unsurprisingly. He’s living now in Nabadwip where, the Vedic scriptures describe, a form of Krishna appeared about five hundred years ago, named Caitanyadeva. People from all over the world come here to worship Caitanyadeva. How they learned about Him is another story, how His teachings fit in with the vast array of teachings in India is another story. All these stories mix together in a way that I’ve never heard of anywhere else.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple has one chapter for each of nine very diverse people here in India, from a prostitute to a divine dancer. I recommend it.

Really there’s just one big tapestry of stories

Do you disagree? Have you traveled around India, stayed with some families, learned about the history and philosophical/religious groups within the country? Let’s talk. The way I see it, there are threads of stories running all over the globe, but there seems to be a real nucleus in India.

Quotes

Mark Twain, American author: “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”

I’ll end with a few quotes about this land.

Will Durant, American historian: “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.

Romain Rolland, French scholar : “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”

 

If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments. If you agree with me, please debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by giving your e-mail in the top right part of the screen. You’ll get a free mini audio-book/e-book too. And be sure to click the relevant links to share this around!
I’m publishing once every two weeks.

 

 


How creativity builds empathy

Life is diverse indeed

https://btlowry.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/creation-maintenance-destruction.jpg

Bad guys have their own motivations.

In nuanced stories, no one is just plain evil. That’s true in real life too. This ‘evil-doer’ is just carrying on the inheritances of a bad childhood. She’s trying to uphold tradition and order. He wants the land back that was stolen from his people generations ago. She’d determined to save her country’s principles, and the only way to do it is to rule it with an iron fist. An antagonist is a hero in her own mind.

Good guys have their faults.

An anti-hero has more faults than most. Clint Eastwood’s characters, Wolverine, the couple in Natural Born Killers, the dudes in Pulp Fiction. They’re so twisted that they’re protagonists but not heroes, in my mind. I don’t have friends as heavy as that, but most of the people I look up to aren’t perfect. I love them anyway.

Diversity

navadvipa-bengal-4

In any discussion or debate, it’s nice to see characters representing different points of view. It’s the same in fiction. It’s boring if everyone sees things in the same way, like a herd of animals. If a theme of a story is spirituality, it’s uninteresting if everyone’s of the same faith, and of the same flavor of that one faith. Rather if we have a cast of atheists, theists, polytheists, scientists and ex-believers, we can flesh out the issues in their discussions, conflicts, actions and reactions.

Straw men. Built to burn.

A straw man is a character who’s there just to prove his world-view wrong. His failure shows that his world-view is flawed. Now, a character may fail because his world-view is unworkable, because his opponents take him down. But he’s got to have reasons for doing what he’s doing. He’s got to make a convincing case, if only to himself, if the story’s going to feel realistic. I may be a theist, but the atheist in my book has to represent himself well.

An aggressive, angry person has their reasons for being that way. It might seem convoluted and hypocritical to me, or to other characters, but he feels he’s justified or he wouldn’t be doing it. I, or the character who’s convictions are most like mine, might vehemently disagree with the villain, but if I’m going to write that character convincingly, I need to understand people who have that nature.

Empathy

In order to write about people who think differently from me, who hold beliefs other than my own, I need to empathize with such folk in real life. I find that as I write more fiction, my appreciation of diverse kinds of people increases.

Bengali people are very different from Canadians

Bengalis and Canadians

I grew up in Canada. Right now I’m in West Bengal. Bengalis as a whole have a very different nature than Canadians.

Broadly speaking, I find Bengali people to be extremely social, family-based, emotional, and devotional. They’re expressive without inhibitions, well into gossip, devotional to the point where they’ll roll around in groups inside of temples, calling out the names of the deities on the altar there.

By contrast, Canadians are reserved, polite, pragmatic and individualistic.

People are a bit like their climate.

The sub-tropical lands of West Bengal are rich with intertwined, often competing life. Canada is cool, vast and sparse by comparison. There are fewer flora and fauna, and what’s there is starkly differentiated. The people are like that too. Everyone sails their own ship. They meet with others, then go on. They don’t like to huddle in huge groups for long.

I may come from a polite and practical people, but how fascinating it is to put expressive, deeply spiritual, collectively-minded people in my stories. Though it irritates me to be shoved aside in a temple, by an eager old-lady-pilgrim’s steel-bar elbows, when I think of her as a character in a story, it’s suddenly a fascinating scene.

artwork by Alina Gaboran

(courtesy of Alina Gaboran, used with permission)

It’s like artwork

If you’re going to draw a person on an object, at least in the post-renaissance style, you have to understand the three-dimensional shape of it, how light plays on it, how shadows fall on it and how it casts shadows, how the shapes join with each other. Some would say that if you want to really show the life of a living subject, you have to be in touch with that life in them. You have to empathize with them, then their likeness will come from your brush.

Diverse spiritual viewpoints

navadvipa-bengal-3

I just participated in a week-long spiritual festival here in Navadvipa town, West Bengal, India. It’s a beautiful place. The Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers all run through the land, dividing it into nine islands. We roamed from temple to temple, singing and dancing like mad. The festival is called the Gaura Purnima festival, celebrating the appearance day of the great spiritual personality, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (affectionately known to the elder ladies of his time as little Nimai)

An incredible diversity of people came to this little town

They came from around the world. Some are by nature creative and artistic, others scientific and practical. Some were born into spiritually-minded families. Others grew up in homes where such discussions never came up. Although coming to the same place under the same spiritual banner, people bring their own convictions with them. Some disagree strongly with others.

In all this sizzling pot of spiritual diversity, I found that my own writing of fiction helps me. The mindset of being a storyteller is allowing me to step back from the intensity of inter-personal drama. I can see it all as a story with an astoundingly diverse cast. With the detachment that comes from imagining it to be unreal, I can better understand people’s motivations. I can take what’s good in them, and the rest is spicy chutney. Certainly a story without conflict would be boring.

There’s a tendency in real life to make people fully good or bad, but in fiction it doesn’t fly. You want some gradations of motivations and selfishness.

Fiction is a kind of allegory, or simplified representation, of the real world’s in its infinite complexity. Often, it can help us understand, accommodate and live life.

How is communication even possible?

The diversity of people throughout the world is so great that I sometimes find it amazing that we can communicate at all. Yet we can, if we try, relate with people very different from ourselves.

Scientifically

Some say this is because we have parts of our brains which mirror the thoughts of others. We give them a temporary house in our heads, and thus come to understand them. By imitating their brains with parts of our own, we come to know them. 

Energetically

Energetically, we hear that people exchange energies when they communicate. Different colors and flavors of energy come from one person and make themselves part of the other. Either way, we take something of the other onboard. We make it our own in order to understand it.

This makes sense to me.

Human beings generally have two arms, two legs, two eyes and so on. There’s a kind of standard physical composition. Women and men aren’t that much different anatomically, except in a few key places. The physical diversity is built on the commonality. We’re much more similar to one another than we are different. Even the bodies of animals have many of the same structures as ours.

I believe that we also share a likeness in our fundamental makeup as conscious beings. We could say that we can understand each other because our fundamental makeup is largely alike. It’s not that we’re all one personality, but our personalities are made up of the same building blocks, arranged and shaped in different ways. I think councilors and psychologists would agree.

Spiritually speaking, I’ve heard we all come from the same source, and that we are wee versions of the supreme conscious entity. 

Most spiritual paths advise us not to judge or criticize others. My own path, bhakti-yoga, certainly emphasizes this. It’s said that if we criticize someone, the faults we perceive in that person will become our own. Conversely, if we see good qualities in others, those virtues will come to us.

Writing fiction helps me to understand and empathize with others. My spiritual path also helps me accept others, which in turn helps my creation of fictional characters. This then helps me spiritually. It’s a sweet back and forth augmentation of goodness.

Plus I’d go crazy if I didn’t get my creativity out somehow. I’m not ready to be a full-on monk just yet.

Thanks to the writing excuses podcast for part of the motivation for this post.

 

Have you got any thoughts on creativity, spirituality and empathy? Share them below.

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I’ll be publishing once every two weeks.


Fire from the Overworld by B.T. Lowry, a New Spiritual Epic Fantasy Book.

Fire from the Overworld cover final

New Spiritual Epic Fantasy Book!

 As some of you may know, I’ve been beavering away at my first fantasy novel for some years now. It’s about a young man and woman who are students of a master mystic, in a desert village. Their teacher travels from his body to the realm of the spirit-rulers, only to be captured by the gods’ enemies. The desert ecosystem swings out of balance. Plants and animals kill each other without reason. The two students discover that the imbalances stem from a battle between spirit-rulers in a higher realm. They strive to restore balance between their world and the higher world, and to regain their teacher. But to do so, they may have to sacrifice what’s dearest to them: each other.

I’m excited to announce that Fire from the Overworld will be available on the 21st of April, in print and digital formats.

What pre-release readers think about it

“Some writers are great stylists and will write beautiful stories that say nothing new or important.  Other writers are great storytellers whose tales are exciting but mundane.  Only rarely do we see a writer whose creates compelling, important stories with captivating prose.  B.T. Lowry is one of those rare authors whose work is not only compelling and moving, but also important to read.  “Fire from the Overworld” is a terrific debut!”

David Farland, New York Times Bestseller, Lead Judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests.

 

It’s like Carlos Castaneda on Brhad-Bhagavatamrta. On the brink of change, these young mystics show the potency of the inner journey and its effect on the world around us. (B.T. Lowry is) a story teller with the capacity to help us regenerate our conceptions.

-Caroline Tharp, Vice President of Gaudiya Vedanta Publications.

 

“Four Worlds” is a complex story that follows the lives of three young protagonists, as the structure of their world falls apart. The three main characters live in a rural town reminiscent of historic India. Yuvali and Héyowan are mystics and close friends who have grown up together, and Pradah is Héyowan’s older brother who will eventually take over for their father as chief of the village. The natural world has gone crazy–animals and men behave erratically, the crops are dying, and attack from roaming bands of codeless warriors threaten the very existence of the village. It is a fight taking place on both the physical plane–Pradah is training to be a warrior to defend the village from attack–and the spiritual plane–Yuvali and Héyowan appeal to the very highest of the gods for rescue. But when the line between good and evil blur, the three children must grow up quickly and make adult choices that will change not only the course of village life, but perhaps change all the infinite worlds ruled by the gods.

 

Lowry’s writing style has beautiful passages of description that easily transport the reader to the kingdom of Raiya. Here’s a brief snippet, when Yuvali is using the mystic powers of an ayur to travel outside her body:

The sand beneath her was liquid, or blowing in the air across the big world, skins on the surface of a great creature who was a ruler herself, and Yuvali was like the dust in the wind around her, blowing everywhere and mixing with the world’s winds. She loosed herself to the four directions.

Hands caught her, held her together so she could go on. Someone with her, keeping her whole. The tree grew closer; a branch caught moonlight as a covering cloud broke apart. Buds lined the branches, and spiky clusters of leaves. The silvery mound had a dark patch within it.

It was a cave.

 

Interspersed and inspired by mythology and oral storytelling, the book’s world has a richness that is the perfect backdrop to an epic story of good and evil. If you’re a fan of Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy or are looking for a YA story similar to the atmosphere of Alexander’s MG-level The Iron Ring, you would enjoy reading “Four Worlds.”

-Alison McBain, Author. Published in Flash Fiction Online and Abyss & Apex.

 

Sample Chapter

I’m offering the first chapter as a sample. It is called ‘Flying,’ and it’s about Yuvali, a young woman and mystic student. She leaves her body as a practice, but is dragged by a mysterious force to distant mountains to witness a strange hunt.

Here is a link to read it online.

How to get the full book

Fire from the Overworld will be available April 21st from Amazon.com in digital and print format. I’ll announce here when it’s published. If it sounds up your alley, please have a read and tell your friends!


Riffing ideas between the different senses and the mind

Here come some techniques that will be helpful to writers, visual artists, musicians and all other creative types. They also help with collaboration between all of the above.

Recently I watched myself brainstorming for stories. My mind worked to form bridges between the diverse worlds of my senses: the eye, nose, tongue, touch and ear worlds. It’s like drawing analogies between different types of sensory input. (Plenty of examples to come) Sensory information can also correspond with concepts, characters and stories. Sound strange and abstract? Well it is, but if you can handle that kind of thing, read on. Here in this article I’m going to send off a few riffs using this brainstorming orchestra.

So let’s say you have ripples in a pond. This is a visual, radial image.

image CC by Rudy Salakory

image CC by Rudy Salakory

You could translate that into any number of radial designs. A cartoon explosion, radio waves, a sound pulse, or orbiting planets within a solar system. You could also make something where many radiating circles connect, but we’ll keep it simple for now.

Now let’s say you want to make those ripples into a concept. Perhaps power and influence is spreading from a central leader. Or maybe news of an event is spreading, through word of mouth and/or technology. Or the spread of radiation or heat, or a shock-blast. The ripples could be taken as patterns in the fabric of space-time.

Now let’s put one of these concepts into a story. Let’s translate the ripples in the water as news spreading of an important event. Something happens. People tell people, who tell others. Gradually a huge number of people know.

But what happened? Let’s see… We’ll grab another idea using a similar method and see if we can combine them. Let’s look for another visual pattern.

Here’s something you might see wandering around on a brainstorm walk:

Line of pillars CC Chris Smith

Line of pillars CC Chris Smith

They’re evenly spaced vertical units. What else is like so? Soldiers in a line comes to mind, or a row of planted trees. A musical rhythm in the ear-world, or in the touch-world, someone tapping on your arm. In the realm of concepts we have consecutive regular events, like the daily release of a newspaper? Or a regularly broadcast signal from another planet. How about contractions? They’re regular but coming closer together.

Let’s choose contractions; birth is a very primal, interesting event after all.

So the event is an impending birth, and the contractions are coming regularly, closer and closer together. Soon the baby will be born and news will spread. So we’ve made concepts out of two images, then combined them together.

Who’s the baby?

baby in tunnel CC Pamela

baby in tunnel CC Pamela

I don’t know yet!

Moving to the ear-world for a source of inspiration, let’s check out Ali Akbhar Khan, a Sarod master from India.

Here’s a track from his album Garden of Dreams. (It really kicks off at about 1:45)

Now when I first heard this song, the swirling, flowing, progressive qualities of the music brought the following scenario to my mind: I’m on a little raft in a small but powerful river. The river has bored through a mountainside in a pattern like an ant’s nest. I’m going over waterfalls, whipping around corners, going fast and slow. Kind of like this scene from Aladdin, minus the magic carpet and lava.

So back to the idea we’re brainstorming for. The contractions are coming closer. Someone special is about to take birth, and that news will be broadcast. What kind of person is taking birth? They’re on a river? What’s this music all about?

How to connect all this into something cogent?

Let’s take a step into the subtle and bring in the principle of reincarnation. This person’s not just popping into existence; they have a history before this life. That history’s been like a river-ride through a mountainside. Wherever they’re coming from, it’s been an adventure, with ups and down, slows and fasts. We don’t have details yet, but it’s getting interesting, isn’t it?

Let’s learn more about this person who’s going to take birth. There’s a saying that the story of your life is written on your face. Who has the most lines? Old people, of course. I spend quite a bit of time in India, where people’s faces are fantastic and diverse, so I’m drawn to search for people there.

Doing a quick image search for ‘Old person India,’ some great photos come up. We’re not worried about our character’s gender for now, so I chose two men and two women, just so I don’t get in trouble with either side 😉

Now looking at these pictures, I’m going to write some words down about each of them, all in one list. At this point, I’m not choosing physically descriptive words like ‘wrinkly,’ or ‘blue eyed.’ I’m looking for qualities that I perceive in the person. This will be very subjective.

old man 2

So here goes. For this picture (man with turban), I’ve got defeated, prayerful, peaceful, hopeless, experienced, kind, struggle.

old woman

For this one (woman putting on earring) I’ve got wistful, thoughtful, nostalgic, social, shy, determined. What would you come up with?

old woman 2

For this one (woman looking over her glasses) I’ve got funny, clever, naughty, ironic.

Inde, Madhya Pradesh, Orchha, vieil homme barbu // India, Madhya Pradesh, Orchha, old man with a beard

And for this last one (balding man with beard) I’ve got stoic, fixed, funny, spiritual, wild.

So if we put all the words together, we get this list:

Defeated, prayerful, peaceful, hopeless, experienced, kind, struggle, wistful, thoughtful, nostalgic, social, shy, determined, funny, clever, naughty, ironic, stoic, fixed, funny, spiritual, wild,

Let’s mix up the order.

Defeated, experienced, wild, struggle, ironic, naughty, social, prayerful, determined, spiritual, kind, funny, wistful, shy, stoic, clever, hopeless, thoughtful, peaceful, fixed, nostalgic, funny,

What would be some unusual qualities to find together?

How about peaceful and wild? This person could have two contradictory sides of them. Perhaps the peaceful side is dominant and sometimes they’re wild, or they could be mainly wild but sometimes their peaceful side could unexpectedly come out. Spiritual and defeated: perhaps a great defeat in their life led them turn to spirituality. Clever and stoic: these are both qualities that make this person a doer, someone who has the intelligence and determination to get things done. Or perhaps they don’t act much themselves, but just weather what life throws at them while deepening their understanding.

So peaceful, wild, spiritual, defeated, clever and stoic. That’s the kind of person who went through that turbulent ride in their previous life, and who’s about to be born as someone who is important to a great many people.

It’s this quality of person that’s passed through turbulent ups and downs in their previous lives, and who’s journey has brought them to the point where they’re about to be born again. They must be some kind of great personality, because news of their birth will spread like wildfire, far and wide.

Curious yet?

From there we could fill out other parts of the story, like who the child’s mother is, whether it’s a boy or a girl, what their country is, what people think they’ll do in this life, and so on. In this way we can develop an entire story out of ideas ‘transposed’ from one sense to another, ranging from subtle/abstract to very physical/sensory. My sense is that there is a structure underlying reality which makes all this cross-pollination possible.

You can also collaborate with others using these methods.

I did this with my friend Keli. We chose a word–a mood: ‘patience.’ He made a song for this mood and I made a video to go along with it.

So to conclude, this isn’t a system per se, but a kind of foray though what may actually be a kind of system of sensory information patterns interplaying with consciousness. It’s a way of crossing over between senses disciplines, finding unexpected threads to connect them.

A last note: hats off to the folks at Writing Excuses: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor. Their podcast has inspired me a great deal. I’d recommend this recent episode about brainstorming. There’s lot of other great stuff there too.

Have you got any thoughts on creativity, idea generation and brainstorming? Please share your ideas about ideas in the comments.

You can subscribe by clicking ‘follow’ in the lower right hand corner of the screen, or click facebook or twitter to share this around.

I’ll be publishing once every two weeks.

 

 


Moments in between

In our lives, there are moments in between the main bits. These moments are like spaces between chapters–interludes. They’re great times for reflection.

Of course there are the main chapters of our lives: times of great action and involvement, when we are greatly connected with particular places and people. These chapters are full of lessons, challenges, and the deepening of connections with ourselves and others. Like little spirals within larger arcs, we live wee chapters within larger ones. A small chapter might be growing accustomed to a new home, a large chapter could be raising a child, or making a career. Each chapter has its own beginning, middle and end.

Then there are the spaces in between.

Like the top of a jump.

In these moments, we may take a step back from the heat of the moment to reflect on the larger story unfolding around and within us. These times are very valuable. They’re also wistful, introspective, introverted, and reflective opportunities.

These moments come while traveling, while I’ve left somewhere, but are not yet at our destination. I don’t mean that hectic time of trying to get on a bus, train or airplane, but the time when I am already onboard. My obligations in the place I was just in are concluded or on hold, and I have not yet arrived in the place I am going. In this time in between, there is a great opportunity for introspection and reflection. This song exists, for me, in a space like that. It was made by my good friend Keli Marks, and I hope you like it too.

If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments! If you agree with me, you can debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by clicking ‘follow’ in the lower right hand corner of the screen, or click facebook or twitter to share this around.

I’ll be publishing once every two weeks.


How to age with grace

It’s tough getting old.

A friend of mine who’s pushing 70 told me that his body’s like an old car. First this bit goes, then that bit goes… It’s tougher still when you’re surrounded by images glorifying youth. On the media we see oily muscly men with practically no body hair, women who’s proportions have been photoshoped so that they resemble barbies.

But there are advantages.

If it’s a life well lived, old age can be one of the best times. You can reap the material fruits of working hard and saving money, can enjoy friendships which have deepened over time, and can act with deeper self-knowledge than before. Whatever we gather–be it knowledge, wisdom or stuff, we’ll likely have a store of it to relish and share later in life.

So what I’m thinking about today is, how to age with grace?

Some people really hit their stride in their later years, but in what? There are some things we can’t take with us into old age: the smooth skin, endurance and strength of youth. Oh, we can age more slowly or more quickly, depending on how we live. But age we must. Some of us are dragged into older age while desperately clinging to the things that only youth allows: tons of energy, lots of sex, unstoppable immune systems, parties… Of course if you watch your diet and do yoga, you can stretch your life out (hardy har har), but we’re all getting older. Or our bodies are, anyway.

Where are the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, New Kids on the Block?

Or where are any host of young actors and actresses who moved from A-list to B-list, then to C, then off into the oblivion of non-famousness, Sinéad O’Connor’s letter to Miley Cyrus (language warning) sums up the music industry, and really most entertainment industries. They’re factories which churn in the young, pretty and talented, then churn out the washed up. (It’s better to burn out than to fade away) Rock stars, movie stars and models have it easy in youth and hard in old age. In the media, women have it harder than men. The window of being suitable for the uses of those industries is small. The body will change.

Different parts of us age differently

Now the way I understand it, (based largely on the teachings of Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual books) we’ve got three aspects: our self (soul, spirit, atma), our mind and our body.

Body aging

Our bodies are aging constantly, starting at the moment of inception. I’ve heard a body hits its peak at around eighteen years, then slowly deteriorates from there.

Mind aging

Pursuits of the mind, on the other hand, often really kick off later in life. Many authors are published for the first time in their fifties or sixties. Professors hit their stride after much life experience. In their later years, scientists mine jewels from decades of research. Musicians become masters.

Yet the mind also fades later in life. Also death is ever approaching… what to do?

How to age with grace: spiritual life

I know many people entering into old age who really inspire me. They all share certain things in common: they’re engaged in spiritual practices. They identify themselves as being spiritual beings who continue after the body and mind fail. They know that their spirit doesn’t die, and they’re identifying with their spirit. They’re not holding onto something impermanent, and so they’re no afraid of entering old age and, eventually, dying.

 

I don’t believe in the moon

Now if you don’t believe in any kind of spiritual life whatsoever, that’s fine. I personally choose not to believe in the moon. Seriously though, I reckon if we spend our lives cultivating awareness of our immortal selves, old age and death won’t come as a shock. Death will just be the shedding of skin.

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. (Bhagavad Gita 2.22)

If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments! If you agree with me, you can debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by clicking ‘follow’ in the lower right hand corner of the screen, or click facebook or twitter to share this around.

I’ll be publishing once every two weeks. I was doing once a week, but I want to put more time into each post, and also into getting them out there 🙂


A writer’s writer

I saw this video recently. It is the acceptance speech of science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. She just received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

A friend of mine recommended her work to me sometime ago, but it took a while to get around to it. Recently I read, or rather heard, the books of the Earthsea Saga.

In a time of when fast action, tight plots, explosions and so on are the norm, I found her work refreshingly contemplative, mystic and subtle. As an author, I also found it liberating to read a story much so rich and poetic, which didn’t shy away from delving into an exploration of the main character’s deeper self.

In this talk, she speaks about how an author need not aim to please the financial big-guns, just to become rich and famous. An author is a servant and an artist, with a duty to connect with their audience and share something valuable.

I was looking today at a website where you can crowd source your book publication. This is also very interesting. So I admit, although I don’t think of myself in that way, that I have desired to be picked up by a big company. And I may yet, but the point is to be a writer, not to be a famous rich writer.

So I am looking to connect with more people who like the kind of work I make, spiritual fantasy.