Friday, 11 November 2016

Book Review: Hopatcong Vision Quest by Steve Lindahl

My rating: 5 stars.
Hopatcong Vision Quest is an interesting combination of psychology, spirituality and crime with the added bonus of a riveting plot line. The story takes the reader into two different eras through the lives lived by the same souls in different bodies.

Diane, a woman in the 21st century, wants to solve the riddle of her mother’s drowning in Lake Hopatcong. She believes it is connected to the death of another woman and approaches Ryan, the woman’s husband, for help. With her mother’s friend Martha, they consult a hypnotherapist, who takes them into memories of their past lives in the 17th century in the same location, where similar incidences occurred. Diane’s 17th century counterpart was a woman called Oota Dabun, who wanted to go on a vision quest even though the rite was reserved for boys in their journey into adulthood. The two women share the desire for understanding.

This book engaged me right from the start and a few pages in I did not want to put it down. The characters, both in the present and their past lives, are relatable, yet enigmatic enough to make the reader wonder about what drives them. Some of them were of different genders and races in former lives, inviting the characters themselves and the reader to consider their motivations. The philosophical question of what impacts the human psyche, and whether nature or nurture has the strongest effect on our actions, comes to the fore. Even the dark characters are not entirely undeserving of empathy.

Since this book is rich in spiritual lessons, it inspired contemplation on how I responded to the characters and the plot lines. True to my personality, I felt drawn to the traditions of the 17th century Lenape tribe, where nature had things to teach people. In the thread of the present, I felt most judgemental towards the character who abuses authority for personal gain.

The story looks at themes of anger, justice and love from the perspective of the soul. In line with the cross-generic nature of the novel, resolution happens in a manner different from merely cracking the clues. The insight gained by the characters invites the reader to reflect too.

I have highlighted two powerful quotes that captured my attention:

“The earth was a minuscule spot among the stars in the universe, yet there were more kinds of love in this tiny world than anyone could count.”
“I like to sit by the lake. I like the quiet days when the water appears solid, with only ripples raised by the wind. But sometimes people bring conflict, sometimes a powerboat breaks the surface, creating waves larger than the ones the wind made. When that happens, the wind seems to say, ‘Just wait. I can do better.’ And before too long, there’s a storm with even taller waves. So to me the water says, ‘I am you. And like you I can be love or hate, forgiveness or anger, peace or war.’ I choose love, forgiveness, and peace, then go on sitting by the water.”

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Looking for One’s Other Half

I have often felt like a misfit due to my views being different from the values of the culture I live in. One prominent example is my attitude towards romance. In my twenties especially, most people I knew were looking for the “right person” and many expected me to do the same. I remember many frustrating conversations where the topic came up and I was asked why I did not want to get married. My answer quite often provoked more questions, and despite my best efforts I usually felt that I could not get the person to understand that like there are some things they would not choose for themselves, I simply did not feel inclined. I don’t remember ever asking anyone why they did want to get married. It’s not because I wasn’t interested in their views, but because I thought the answer was personal, like a choice of career or hobby.

Marriage aside, the idea of an intimate relationship was not a non-issue for me. I felt that the concept of looking for another person as one’s other half was ingrained in the collective mind-set, but it did not work for me. When I looked for someone as a potential relationship partner, I felt lacking because I was not in a relationship. The biggest problem for me was knowing how much people revere the idea of the right person, and feeling that in my flawed human state I could never live up to someone’s expectations. An obvious challenge was the truth of my feelings about marriage when there seemed to be consensus among the people I knew that the point of any relationship was finding the right marriage partner. I could not be close to someone and cover up my truth.

A lot of people gave advice on finding the right person. Some of them were single or divorced, and although logically I knew that they did not have it all figured out, I was confused by the fact that everyone seemed to have answers even when they didn’t, and I had none. In theory I understood that another person could not fulfil me, and that I had to make myself happy first before I could think about being happy with another. Of course I was aware that if one tries to be happy for the sake of finding someone, one is missing the point. Still, I did not always recognise that inner work aimed at self-improvement was still putting pressure on myself to do better than just where I was. Striving to improve sounds admirable, but there is the danger of rejecting unwanted aspects of one’s person.

I only really stopped feeling powerless about relationships and my ineptitude when I went beyond rational thought and started dealing with my true feelings. Even though I reprimanded myself for it, there was the fear of the unknown if I never got into a serious romantic relationship. In my mind there was a social stigma around being an unmarried older woman. Worse than being unworthy of any man’s attention or failure at what nearly every person could do at some point or another, i.e. be intimate with someone, was my fear of falling through the cracks in society. I felt that I would be judged as abnormal if I didn’t live up to this expectation. The fear boiled down to being an outcast, but when I realised I was comfortable with my circumstances, I could have conviction in my own choices regardless of society’s standards.

Even though I am in a stable relationship now, I still think that the right person is a myth. When we look for our "other half" it is based on an illusion that the light in me needs the light in another to be whole and complete. Instead I think that the other half we are looking for is our own darkness. Our fears and weaknesses give us important information. When we own and acknowledge those unwanted aspects of our being, the light in us is more powerful. Finding a special connection and possibly sharing one’s life with another is a mystery I will not pretend to understand.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Privilege and Its Pitfalls

Privilege is generally seen as a positive aspect of life, but the idea could be a hindrance to personal freedom and promote social inequality. In my middle class Protestant background, as children we were made aware of our privilege from an early age. We were taught to be grateful for having our survival needs met and having access to the best facilities, which would enable us to continue the legacy provided that we devoted our efforts to society’s notion of success. Quite often the idea was at odds with religious doctrine of love, service and the insignificance of material possessions. While I think gratitude is a most valuable tool to navigate the waters of life, I don’t see any reason why it should be adopted against the misfortune of others, however subtly it is brought into the equation.

The Wheel of Fortune as a symbol
illustrates that everyone is subject
to the ups and downs of life.
Within the idea of privilege I find a subconscious assumption that only some people can have good fortune while others have to be underdogs. This is problematic on so many levels, especially when it is accepted that that is just the way the world works. To begin with, those in “privileged” positions might not be happy with their circumstances, because the set-up does not suit them. They might not be content for whatever reason, and within our rigid social structure that classifies people according to their wealth, there might be little escape for the privileged in misery. Making changes could compromise their relationships, finances and social position, which could lead to even more suffering and disconnection from others. From a different perspective, regarding some people as under-privileged because of the absence of financial riches could deny their competences. We limit ourselves when we define people according to their financial capacities. There is light and darkness in everything, and in reality human nature cannot be confined within social categories.

Our notion of privilege also encourages me to think about where basic rights end and where special rewards begin. In a truly humanitarian society, having one’s survival needs met would be a right unless Nature decides otherwise. The same goes for access to education in a chosen area of interest when it is available. I do not propose that anything should be taken for granted, but I think an attitude of appreciation is a personal choice that benefits the one who adopts that mind-set. Clinging to stale notions of privilege makes inequality easier to justify as it is convenient to argue that working in harsh circumstances or being underpaid is preferable to having no income. It is inevitable that those in privileged positions are the benefactors giving the under-privileged the means to survive. A power imbalance can thereby easily be disguised as charity.

Something I find ironic is seeing how often misery results from clinging to superior positions. It might be my own projection, but I have often felt that in highly privileged environments there is little room for hilarity or genuine connection. Some of the wisest and kindest people I have known didn’t have money or status, and I have been to places where people showed warmth to me despite difficult political and economic circumstances. I do not wish to deny the challenges faced by those who struggle financially, or claim that everyone who is rich or successful is miserable. I do however suggest that we look deeper into our notion of privilege and question whether it is useful in any way unless we can have compassion while there is still social inequality.

Ultimately privilege is a matter of perspective. Life can be seen as a privilege with all the ups and downs, even though it might not always be obvious in dark times. Sharing with and learning from others, no matter what the differences in background, can enrich us if we look past appearances.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Hero’s Journey and the Collective Unconscious

I started writing my first novel, In Search of the Golden City, when I was ill with hepatitis. I had wanted to write an actual full book of fiction (as opposed to poetry, essays or academic writing) for more than a decade, but I didn’t have inspiration, or I was busy, or afraid although I didn’t know it back then. Being spiritually oriented, I asked for an idea and I received one, and still I postponed the actual writing. I set a deadline, or rather a starting line, for myself, but the day came and went and still I hadn’t done anything. Two weeks later I fell ill and was booked off work for three weeks. I still believe that it was the Universe’s way of nudging me forward.

The story took shape as I continued, and I finished the book by being committed to writing a certain number of hours a week. During the process of writing I let myself go and allowed whatever wanted to emerge. The end product was a very symbolic tale filled with mythical elements. I was fascinated to discover similar themes in myths or stories written by others. As an example, a friend with whom I share an interest in mysticism, spirituality and healing introduced me to her friend who is also a writer, Eva Lara. I learned that she had written a book in Spanish called El GuardiƔn del Umbral, English translation The Guardian of the Threshold. I have not read her book because I do not understand Spanish, but just going on the title, the book I had already written contained the same theme verbatim. I also read about the concept of the Hero's Journey as identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Although I had no knowledge of the concept prior to finishing my book, I found that there were many parallels in my novel.

The fool in the Tarot can be a symbol
of embarking on a personal journey.
When I studied psychology at university, I was introduced to the work of Carl Jung and the theory of the collective unconscious, a realm of archetypes that take expression in myths, connected to the human psyche. When I learned about shamanism, I could equate it to the spirit world. I believe that this aspect of our being is universal to humanity, and even though we have become profoundly disconnected from it in our modern society, it still shows up in our art, religion and even science. From this perspective, the Hero's Journey perhaps tells us something about being human that we all know deep down although we are not always aware of it.

For the purpose of this article I will focus on my understanding of the Hero’s Journey as it features in my own writing. Broadly speaking, the Hero's Journey is one of personal transformation. The hero receives a call to go on an adventure, much like Bilbo in Tolkien’s work The Hobbit. He receives supernatural help or guidance and at some point crosses a boundary between the known and the unknown, where he enters a magical landscape. Here he faces challenges and finds wisdom, sometimes through dying and being reborn. He can then return to the known world or material reality to apply what he has learned. (Source: Wikipedia.)

The protagonist in my book is a healer called Akim, who goes in search of a legendary Golden City because he wants to be with the woman he loves. There are no directions to the Golden City, and his clues are stories of others who have made it there by remaining true to themselves:

“… what they had in common was an almost desperate desire to reach the Golden City. Some of them had it easier than others; some were courageous, but most of them were far from perfect. A few were rather bad, but they were redeemed through introspection and love for something or someone outside themselves.”

As individuals we vary in our goals and ideas, but the similarities between the stories we come up with lead me to the idea that perhaps collectively we have a common purpose that is mysterious and veiled, but without which life has little meaning. Could the Hero’s Journey be about the will to grow? Could it tell us something about a soul’s journey in a corporeal existence and the drive to know and create the self through transcending ordinary reality? I am reminded of the Biblical Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know just as also I am known.” (Translation from Wikipedia.) I no longer go to church, but having grown up in a Christian environment I remember 1 Corinthians 13, about love, as one of my favourite passages in the Bible.

As a final note I will add that the experience of illness as a call to purpose or healing through engaging with the spiritual realms is a universal concept of shamanic initiation. In this case, I needed to keep my commitments and act on what I had been given. As soon as I did, I recovered faster and in the end went back to work after only a week and a half. The writing must have healed my body and soul.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Creativity and our Connection with the Universal Mind

Creativity is an interesting thing because nobody can really tell another person how to be creative. Many people have told me that they are not creative at all, but I don’t believe them. Some people express their creativity more than others, while many people prefer to think of themselves as analytical thinkers. But all of us have creative imagination as well as the ability to think logically. I think that creativity is intrinsically a part of every human being as much as the capacity to love.

Many people don’t develop their creative faculty, or they lose touch with it because they are not encouraged to use it. Although I have always written poetry and/or kept a journal, I put less effort into it in the time when my office job consumed most of my time and energy. The most useful advice I got to help me actually start writing fiction, something I had dreamed of doing for 14 years before I started, was from reading interviews with established authors like Neil Gaiman and Paulo Coelho. I learned that an author doesn’t need to have everything exactly worked out before starting to write, and that the unconscious is a valuable tool. Having gathered enough courage and filled to the brim with frustration with my circumstances, I started writing without really knowing what I was doing. What emerged was at times unexpected, and it intrigued me.

The creative process is fluid, and reflecting on it I cannot say that I truly know what the relationship between me, the story and the characters is. I used to think that an author invented a story, and for me the idea was a barrier as I felt that it was too difficult to think of something as brilliant as some of the stories I have read. Things changed when I asked for a story, and met the characters in another realm, and asked them to tell me their story. In that way, something sincere started to unfold. Rather than achieving something, I felt that my first novel, In Search of the Golden City, was a journey through which I learned a lot about myself and my personal path. The creative process is all the more spell-binding when I work with it even though I don’t understand it.

Through creativity I feel a connection with the universe, and this brings to mind the mysterious Source of everything we know. The idea of the universe as a creation has been in dispute by mainstream religion and mainstream science, as if our human minds could know the answers to something as profound and impenetrable as universal origins. I have at times felt that talking about “creation” is heretical in the eyes of supporters of the science paradigm, because it presupposes the idea of an intelligent force behind everything. To some people it smacks of religious dogma, and to combat it, they would rather embrace the idea of an accident without purpose. Religious and scientific dogma aside, I do feel that there is a Creative Source that I am sometimes more in touch with than others, and that magic and healing start happening through communion with this Source.

As an artist, when I create something, it doesn’t always come out as planned. What I create has a will of its own, and the process is most powerful when I allow that will to come through me. In that sense, I don’t feel like a creator at all, rather an instrument. Although my characters are sometimes in conflict with one another, they are part of the same story, and they learn from one another since each expresses an aspect of something that is buried within me.

Suppose then, we wove our own stories through the universe as a work of art, what would our relationship with the Creator be? I think that question is as open for interpretation as the one of what my relationship with the characters in the stories I write is. In my opinion, the conventional idea of intelligent design falls short when it advocates a creator that made the universe a long time ago but is essentially separate from it. The idea of accident without purpose doesn’t ring true either. Without pretending to know anything, I could imagine that we are all part of the same dream, and that each person or thing is an aspect of the dream. As we live, we could strive towards creating bright, powerful stories with the full magic of being a facet of a glorious and unfathomable dream. Or we could play a part in a dull story directed by those who deny the spectacular life force, if we believe in their power rather than our own.