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.
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.
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!
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Life is diverse indeed
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.
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.
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
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.
(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
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!