TRANSCENDENCE AMID THE APOCALYPSE

Finding anybody who hasn’t wished, in earnest or otherwise, for a nuclear war during their morning commute would be a tall order. Some waterlogged, reptilian lobe in our brains still holds that perverse desire for a world that has blown itself to bits, erasing every shred of crosswalks, tax returns, and iPhone models in one fell (irradiated) swoop. Of course, the sentiment flies in the face of the human development narrative:

We went from caves to huts, from huts to villages, from villages to cities, from cities to functional societies. For all the doom and gloom that pervades our media, humans have done a remarkable job of keeping civilization’s vast machine up and running. When we compare the tooth-and-nail, skull-cracking reality of our past to the sanitized portrait of the present, what do we really have to complain about?

Plenty, our intrusive thoughts seem to whisper in reply.

Many of us feel enslaved to institutions that are too large—indeed, too entrenched—to ever be uprooted or altered. We feel powerless against the corruption of overreaching police forces, state governments, and corporate interests. We feel patronized by sign-in Captcha systems that demand proof of our humanity.

And so, in turn, what provides respite from this onslaught of modern neurosis? Fantasy and science fiction, of course. But the tropes we embrace are a far cry from the hopeful, utopian visions we ought to recognize as a possible outcome for human development. Instead we grasp at brutal, tyrannical empires and barren worlds. We crave tales in which darkness has already swallowed the masses, unleashing genocidal AI constructs, plagues born of blood rituals, and nuclear winters that make Red Dawn look subtle. If art gives any indication as to our social trajectory, we ought to be worried.

After all, many of today’s best-selling fantasy novels—created in an age of #MeToo and broad pushes for human rights—are chock full of rape and vigilante justice, the very acts that we have universally rejected as abhorrent. They play with the chillingly real dangers of privacy invasion, ideological repression, body mutilation, and a thousand other impending threats.

But even the best op-eds on this topic fall back on a worn-out, even naive, foundation to explain this discrepancy: Humans want simplicity. They want a world in which all of our real fears are sublimated into overblown life-or-death struggles, and our petty concerns bleed into the backdrop of bigger issues.

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In some sense, I agree with this idea. But there’s a fundamental element that underlies our ennui, and rarely have I seen it discussed, let alone named as the prime mover to our secondary fears. This is, perhaps, because this element is not confined to fiction. It is an explanation for true, inescapable human dread, trailing us all from dawn to dusk. What these theories fail to recognize is the frailty of sentient life when matched against a chaotic, capricious universe.

In short, they sidestep the quest for human transcendence.

I’m not talking about the uploading of consciousness into hydraulic, nano-augmented bodies. This form of transcendence is one rooted in spirituality and timeless contemplation. A recurring backbone to apocalyptic stories (whether based in reality or an alternate fantasy setting) is the presence of mindless, irreconcilable evil, and, in turn, the pursuit of ideals and benevolence in the face of this uncaring tide. Demonic forces and human savagery are equals in the world of speculative fiction, and they play on the same instinctive sense of morality (and its violations).

Looking out at our modern world, many of us surely wish that we could push back against evil by doing something as tangible as rescuing a colony of kidnapped clones or confronting a race of flame-eyed squid monsters. But our world provides no easy paths to morality. There are no villains with skull thrones, nor fleets of black-clad super soldiers preparing for imminent invasion. Instead we are left adrift in a sea of automated answering machines and charity fraud cases, all the while wondering what the hell we were born to do.

When we engage with fantasy and science fiction set in a ruined world, we see a chance for humanity to rise from the ashes of its cutting-edge, quantum-computing arrogance and follow a perennial path. A path of love, of hope, of appreciation for all sentient creatures. No matter how ash-strewn or ancient the land may be, there are fundamental aspects of goodness that shine through eons, through the rise and fall of cultures, through every aspect of what we consider to be “the world.” In fiction, “the world” is a malleable and ever-changing concept that is determined solely by the writer’s imagination, and the reader’s subsequent investment in it. We feel a sense of human dignity that extends beyond the realm of fantasy and breaches the realm of possibility.

While religion may not have a firm place in fantasy any longer, many of its ideas and traditions still wander into the genres we enjoy. We prize heroes that recognize the sanctity of life, that eagerly give away their possessions, that are ready and willing to destroy themselves and their body if the situation demands it. All of these traits align with the various religious practices of our world, and in that sense, they reflect truths that transcend any human creation. These truths are numinous yet more necessary than ever, and their form—whether in mass paperback binding or issued from a pulpit—means little in the final analysis.

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After all, what values can be considered more necessary for existence than love? Maybe Interstellar had a point. Anything that enshrines a being’s sacrifice to fellow beings (or to deities, for that matter) is an expression of the inherent goodness within all sentient life. And in the midst of worlds that are blackened, scorched, and bloodstained, goodness is the only thing capable of undoing the mistakes of a flawed species. Anything else is an aberration of the human (or alien) ego, which operates on a need for power and domination. Genre fiction, in many senses, presents rejections of this pride and sense of cosmic mastery. It presents tales of machines destroying their creators, weapons massacring their users, and magic corrupting its wielders.

Not everybody who enjoys fantasy and science fiction will find value in spirituality, but those who are receptive to it will find ample fuel within their leisure time. They will find fuel in the wastelands of Mad Max and the circling carrion birds of Game of Thrones. If even one person decides to try meditation after reading my work (or any fiction, for that matter), then the work has been an overwhelming success.

In these troubled times, transcendence of the human condition has become more necessary than ever. Submission to ideals that are greater than ourselves is the only sanctuary from apps, advertising, and hollow pleasures emphasizing self-pleasing and narcissism. This sentiment, in itself, may appear needlessly alarmist, but the reality is far more frightening:

It’s the only way to keep fiction from morphing into fact.

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The Big Questions—Part II: The Supreme Skill

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If you read part I and found yourself on the edge of your proverbial (or literal, in this case) seat, your mind abuzz with visions of self-help marketing packages and Limitless drug cocktails that will rocket you into the state of mind of ScarJo’s Lucy, you’re probably rolling your eyes at the mere mention of meditation. It has, after all, popped up in everything from martial arts parodies to New Age seminars, and you probably know a handful of people who mediate but are light years away from “enlightened.” If meditation were such a miracle cure to the human dilemmas of rage, selfishness, and narcissism, shouldn’t humanity have sorted its nonsense out by now? Well, maybe. There are a multitude of reasons people might bristle at the suggestion of meditation, and I hope to offer a few counterarguments to these reasons that may not have been brought up in more mainstream channels.

Meditation is not a specific pose, nor an exercise, nor a thing to be done. At its core, meditation is a state of being. It’s complete surrender to the world around you, and, in turn, a sense of radical acceptance of any cause and condition that impacts you. But how does it change anything, one might ask. Consider this: Most of us can readily agree that a person in the middle of a meltdown is not at their logical, compassionate peak. What’s the polar opposite of that, then?

Meditation.

A state in which the world can be processed and responded to without the veils of anger, fear, or personal gain is, by most accounts (my own included), the optimal state for a human being. We may not be able to sit cross-legged and meditate while running for a morning bus, but consistent meditation will make you less likely to scream at a stranger or pollute your head with bitter thoughts for the rest of the day, should you miss that morning bus.

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As I mentioned in the first part of this series, we operate in a realm of manufactured reality, and part of that reality is a treadmill of fear and longing that has propelled the human organism to great heights—but at what cost? Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication is being prescribed at unprecedented rates. Substance abuse is similarly peaking. Worldwide self-reported happiness is substantially lower than we might expect from people living in modern, relatively peaceful societies. Industrialized nations, on average, have the same—or even lower—general satisfaction than pre-industrial ones. Believe it or not (it will be mind-exploding, I’m sure), marketing and global economics do not care about making you happy. They care about making you think you will be content if you can JUST have that new iPhone, that new BMW, that new lamp with polka dots and WiFi speakers.

But you won’t be. And you’re not the one taking a paycheck home for the sale of these things.

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I humbly submit, then, that the answer to our happiness is entirely internal. It has nothing to do with this treadmill of wanting, getting, and becoming bored once again. Once sufficiently explored, I’m certain that every human can agree on one thing: Happiness is real, and happiness is available at all times, regardless of causes and conditions. The real cure to unhappiness is nothing sexy or marketable, however, and the modern world has made it more distant than ever. Good thing we have a time-honored, free, and simple vessel for scouring this inner landscape.

We might say it’s as old as humanity itself.

Across the Ages

There have been countless cultures that utilized meditation as a tool for making sense of the world, and, perhaps more abstractly, for making sense of themselves. Which is not to say that they reached the end of the mystery, of course. Even today, with all of our advancements in science and philosophy, we have no idea why consciousness exists at all. (I urge you to look into the Hard Problem of Consciouness if you find this as fascinating as I do). It’s sobering to think that something so basic and immediate has been overlooked since the dawn of sentient life, and in modern times, has even been pushed aside as a distraction or nuisance. Think of how many people, casually or otherwise, make references to suicide, or to sleeping for the rest of their existence? Consciousness has become a burden to vast numbers of people, it seems.

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But for much of human history, consciousness was treated as an essential part of living and knowing the world. In fact, it is our only way of knowing the world. One might say that the greatest outgrowths of humanity have stemmed from being self-aware. For example, religion (love it or leave it) was intrinsically partnered with consciousness because of the sheer magnitude of awe that accompanies realizing that a being, which appears to be no more than a bundle of neurons and flesh, can taste and smell and hear and love things. How can anybody suitably explain this discrepancy between sentient and non-sentient things? I certainly can’t. Not on a meaningful, philosophical level, anyway. There have been various materialist arguments that aim to discuss the functions and mechanisms of consciousness, but ultimately, nothing satisfactory has been put forth to explain why consciousness (and, in turn, self-awareness) exists. This makes it one of the true “final frontiers,” in my eyes.

It goes without saying that meditation was, and still is, a crucial component in the exploration of consciousness. Once one plants a seed of mindfulness in themselves, there’s no going back. Every moment becomes a chance to notice when one has fallen asleep. Many of our modern religious traditions reflect this. For example, most religions look down on excessive drinking, having wild orgies, and killing other beings. The intent of these practices was not to “strip the fun” out of living, but to provide a more grounded, detached view of the world, which was more concerned with reality than chasing fleeting pleasures.

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We seem to have forgotten that over the eras, and as a result, religion has been cast aside (meditation typically included) as an artifact of older, more superstitious days. I would argue that such tenets do have a place in modern life, however, regardless of your belief in the afterlife or deities.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all make heavy use of prayer, which is one of the more explicit meditative traditions still out there. Many Christian mystics (and gnostics) relied on prayer that is eerily similar to Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices, with the intention of dissolving the personal identity and communing with God. I’ll come back to this in part III, but keep it in your mind for now—it’s essential to understanding why meditation is so transcendental at times.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, of course, there’s a great debate over the existence of souls, universal consciousness, and other ideas. But both traditions have a long and rich history of using meditation to reach deeper and clearer states of consciousness. They both assert that at the core of every sentient being, there is bliss that extends beyond the crudeness of violence or greed.

Likewise, many shamanic traditions and pagan practices aimed to foster a sense of “ecstasy” (that is to say, stepping outside the body) through the use of entheogens (hallucinogens), rituals, and chanting. The latter two practices aimed to reduce the mind’s mental chatter, while the former was aimed at radically altering consciousness for a new (and subjectively mystical) experience.

But what are they all digging at?

“The Moon”

There’s a curious expression that is often cited as being spoken by the Buddha, but which I suspect has far more modern origins (a bit of casual Googling links it to a 2002 book). It goes something like “Do not look at the finger pointing at the moon; look at the moon itself.” There are several Buddhist suttas with close enough messages, however, so I think we can work with it as an anachronistic example.

In essence, the idea is that the methods, words, experiences, and various traditions surrounding the “truth” at the core of meditation are all fingers pointing to something beyond your wildest dreams. This essential truth is the moon itself, but nobody can take you to it—they can only show you it. That’s why the Buddha was so cautious about asserting dogma to his followers. He basically asked them to follow his instructions and see if they worked. Gautama Buddha’s “crowdsourced” enlightenment model was a smashing success, judging by the way it has endured through modern times.

Instead of taking my word for why meditation is life-changing, try it yourself.

Dissolving Yourself

Here’s a secret that poses a threat to the majority of the world’s systems: You do not exist. Not as you might conceive yourself to exist, anyway. Much like the Oracle showing Neo the “nonexistent spoon,” a human being (as we know them) is not a thing at all, but something we have mentally assembled into a contiguous person. Think about it logically. Our ideas, habits, preferences, and thoughts change all the time. Our very cells are replaced on a daily basis. When we’re excited we’re one way, and when we’re calm, quite another.

So while we may look in the mirror and see ourselves, what we’re seeing is a process of change that has come together to form the image of “you.” There’s an incredible quote from the Qur’an that has been translated in various ways, but boils down to this:

“You are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty man thinks is water; but when he comes up to it he finds it is nothing. And where he thought it was, there he finds God.”

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Meditation is a process of stripping away the illusions and habits that tether us to believing that we are our personality, our beliefs, or even our ideas. I’m not claiming that humans are not a real thing—in fact, I think the inner core of a sentient being is more real and alive than we understand. What I do claim is that our sense of self, or ego, is a clever trick that we rarely see beyond. The question that arises, then, is what remains when we strip away that illusory self.

Is it God? Is it an alien? Is it consciousness itself?

It’s part III.

The Big Questions—Part I: “What’s the Meaning of Life?”

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“What’s the meaning of life?” is perhaps the most enduring question in human history, regardless of cultural origins or the aims behind such a question. And with good reason, of course: Imagine the embarrassment of a well-to-do person upon finding out that they’d missed the cosmic punchline to all of reality, or, worse yet, that they’d wasted their existence on a lesser purpose than they were “created” to fulfill.

It’s simple enough to dismiss the question from a nihilistic or absurdist point of view, but if you do so without considering the implications behind that choice, you’ve only managed to blind yourself to crucial elements that pervade any school of philosophy. Avoiding this mind-bending dilemma is hardly a solution at all; it’s a failure to appreciate being alive and sentient. Part of being human is suffering from occasional moments of awe, moments of panic, and moments of existential dread that arise from the knowledge that you will inevitably, in spite of your money or fame or Instagram followers, die and return to a state of nothingness beyond any human conception.

And that’s the beginning of our journey.

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Where there is fear, there’s curiosity. Where there’s curiosity, there is resolve. And where there’s resolve, there’s the endless possibility for change.

Keep in mind that this entire series of posts is not intended to be a guru’s message to followers (or dogma by any means), but merely a collection of reflections and take-it-or-leave-it advice broadcasting from one sentient being to another.

There’s a lot to unpack with this topic, however, and that’s why the title of this series is “The Big Questions.” One question gives rise to another, and another beyond that. Each idea presented here could be expanded into a separate blog. To be clear and earnest from the onset, however, I do believe that life has tremendous meaning. This is not, strictly speaking, identical to asserting that there is an express purpose to life, or that I personally claim to have the solution to such a dilemma, should it exist. You see, the rabbit hole of defining meaning goes deeper than any of us would like to acknowledge.

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In what is very likely a jarring transition, I’d like to discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for a moment. While it may appear unrelated now, I promise that it holds significance for much of what will follow. To briefly summarize the allegory, Plato describes a cave in which prisoners are shackled inside of a cave, and can only view the shadows formed by people using a fire-lit display somewhere behind them. They take these shadows to be real things, and their entire life is defined by the movement of the shadows that are cast by these walking yet unseen people. Now, suppose one of these prisoners gets out of the cave, wanders up into daylight, and is stunned by both the sun’s brilliance as well as the notion that there’s a REAL WORLD he never could’ve fathomed. Now he’s faced with the tough task of descending back into the cave and telling all his buddies about the world up there. As you might expect, they think he’s lost his marbles. Sunlight? Psh. The shadows are the real show, they say.

Now, remember that allegory. Turning to more grounded matters. . . .

Let’s suppose I make this innocuous claim: “The meaning of life is procreation.”

By all accounts, this is a simple and no-nonsense statement that corresponds to our current understanding of evolutionary biology. There’s no denying that our genetic code is an explicit call to create more and more of ourselves. But deeper than that, we run into problems. Who defines meaning? Is meaning a construct of humanity, or is it an ideal that exists regardless of our presence? Is meaning simply the task that is issued to a biological entity? Where does self-awareness fit into the pattern? Can life have a meaning if we have the free will to reject it and substitute our own? And if we continue to procreate, have we “won” the game of life? Will it bring the happiness that we associate with a meaning to conscious life?

It’s tricky, isn’t it?

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Frameworks

Let’s begin by laying down a few frameworks of reference before we progress. It seems generally fair, based on our current research in science (neurology, physics, et al), to assert that:

  1. Humans do not have direct knowledge of the world, but rather a modified perception of it that is generated by neural connections and “hypotheses” the brain forms and tests on a continuous basis.
  2. All of our behaviors (and perceptions, by extension) are the product of the conditioning and events that have shaped our development.

To lend a practical example to the first assertion, all we need to do is look at evolutionary design. Creatures with consciousness that did not alert them to threats, whether real or imagined, were likely devoured by tigers and giant millipedes long before they could make it to the 21st century CE. Those that did, including humans and other animals, had to work with conscious systems that made them hyper-alert and, at times, susceptible to the brain’s own hallucinations about fears and desires. What better way to ensure survival than to make an organism want to kill or mate with everything around it? And what better way to drive said organism to the aforementioned behaviors than to trick its consciousness into being terrified/aroused/ravenous? That’s what we’re dealing with now, long after the days of cavemen.

As for the second point? Let’s take Billy. Billy was raised in a Catholic household, and has never encountered anything that would make him question his belief (bear with me here). We can logically assume, then, that Billy would also be a Catholic, and would structure his perception of the world around Catholicism. Billy would adopt Catholic teachings as his framework of belief for topics such as good, evil, and the meaning of life. If Billy’s brain encountered something that shook his faith so deeply in Catholicism that it no longer seemed realistic or logical, he might very well change his beliefs. But if he went on unobstructed, there would be no such thing as free will when it comes to choosing his beliefs. When given no alternative, we pick from the options that have been presented to us and reinforced by culture. Our sense of self, or ego, is a bundle of these preferences, beliefs, desires, and conditioned habits. This is how we all live, more or less.

So far, this may sound like an extremely post-modern dissection of faith and reason, but I can assure you that it’s headed somewhere entirely different. By using advanced self-awareness as a tool to understand what separates humans from other species, we can begin to understand why humans would seek meaning. We can also move closer to a ground of non-conceptual awareness from which to view the world.

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Awareness

This idea, of course, leads into my assumption that self-awareness is the defining quality of human life, rather than the replication of genetic material. After all, if there’s no sentient being to hear the proverbial tree falling in that proverbial forest, nothing is of anything importance or value whatsoever (in this framework, anyway). Self-awareness lies in direct opposition to unconscious functioning. The question that ensues is “so what?” Why should awareness be linked to the idea of meaning in life?

If you weren’t aware, you wouldn’t even recognize that last sentence as words, let alone something with an intended meaning. You wouldn’t even know you were there! That being said, many of us live our lives in the muddled zone between the Matrix’s red and blue pills, flipping on and off the switch of awareness.

For example, consider how many times you’ve zoned out during driving, only to magically appear at your destination. Or how many times you’ve said something out of habit, boredom, or unconscious babbling. If you pay enough attention, you’ll find that you’re hardly awake at all!

As a consequence, much (if not most) of our experience is lost in the “background” processes of the brain, which saves energy by optimizing its perception and lumping data into objects, remembered concepts, and ideas. When we look at a sofa or a tree, our brain assembles these things into a solid object and fills your awareness with a name and unconscious associations. We look out at a beautiful sunrise and, rather than interfacing with the sight itself, allow our consciousness to react to our meager memories of sunrises. We are not dealing with reality; we are dealing with our brain’s hallucination of what it has already seen and processed into a neatly bundled “thing.” If you were ever wondering where the magic of childhood went, there’s your answer.

Without awareness, we truly are slaves to the programming of evolutionary biology. We can’t resist our cravings for fast food, for sex, for violence, for drugs. There’s hardly any freedom in giving in to your mind’s puppetry, is there? The only solution is to watch how the machine functions, and to break out of those unconscious, world-dulling ruts. Which is not to say it’s an easy task.

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At this point you may be nonplussed. What can we make of this great wall of text? Why have I typed all this nonsense about reality, awareness, and Catholicism in the exposition of Big Questions?

Because until we wake up, we cannot understand life at all. We can only know the dreams and habits that we’ve fabricated for ourselves. These dreams may be frightening, inspiring, or mind-numbingly boring, but they’re dreams nonetheless. Much like a ship’s crew arguing about where their ship is heading in a patch of fog, the question of life’s meaning is utterly pointless until we can engage with reality itself, unobscured by whatever mental screens lie between us and the world we perceive. Instead of mulling over the shadows in Plato’s cave, we ought to emerge from darkness and, even if the sunlight blinds us, come face-to-face with true reality.

In shorter terms, wake up from the Matrix.

As for the perennial question of how to wake up. . . that’s part II.

“What happened to the cook!?”: Or, An Exploration of Loose Ends and Plot Holes in Fiction

Believe it or not, I am a keen browser of my own book’s reviews. This should come as no surprise to most of you, but my mentor, Andre Dubus, had a strict “reviews are for buyers” policy. I have broken his policy thoroughly and consistently. One of the most common complaints I’ve seen about the book is that events tend to occur somewhat nonsensically, and that story arcs are never completed in regards to telos (that is, the idea of something maturing to a natural conclusion as based on its life purpose, such as an acorn becoming a tree, or a tasty avocado becoming my dinner).

Let’s address that.

Now, from the onset, I should be clear in noting that I’m not writing this post to change anybody’s view of the book, nor to teach anybody how to fix plot holes in a novel. Whatever you interpret or feel as a result of its words are your own business, and while I hope you take away something positive, I’m not naive enough to think that the majority of the audience will be left in a state of ecstasy. I’m writing this primarily to explain why the book (and to some degree, its sequels) contain deliberate sabotages of expectations.

One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy (no, let’s say literature in general) is that there’s surprisingly little reality within the genre. Yes, we have the odd exception that pulls back the wool from our eyes, but by and large, we’re confronted with a genre that acts as a reality escape more than an honest depiction of living beings (and their suffering).

So I decided to write something that defied those limitations.

When I watch the news, my heart breaks for those who are shelled in Ukraine. For those who are gassed and shot in Syria. For those who are taken from their families and enslaved in the heart of Africa. I was fortunate enough to grow up without violence as part of my life, but many others weren’t.

And now, having seen reviews that ask “why didn’t X get revenge on Y?”, I feel compelled to answer.

Reality seldom bends to one’s wishes. Even the most noble intentions of redemption are often led astray, but this is a fact easily forgotten in an age where media forms our earliest perceptions of the world. Narrative arcs have become our reality. The truth is that revenge is rarely granted to us mortals. People disappear in the wilderness without so much as a scrap of fabric to identify their presence. Cars crash and people suffer heart attacks and tsunamis overrun entire nations, all without consequences. This is the world we live in.

Yet when we engage with a novel, which I view as a window into somebody else’s reality more than mere entertainment, we expect to find neat and tidy resolutions to every problem ever faced by mankind. We expect people to get what they deserve. We expect wars to be wrapped up in a ribbon and sent home without paying the postage.

But for me, these stories reflect universal truths.

Children who see their parents murdered before their eyes will rarely, if ever, get a chance to take the life of their tormentor. Those who lose their family to genocide must live with that pain.

For me, a revenge tale (or any form of neatly concluded adventure) is an attempt to sidestep the earnest and pervasive pain in life. I don’t consider myself a pessimist (quite the opposite, in fact), but I acknowledge that suffering is present in the majority of our daily life. I wanted my writing to reflect that, and to reflect the countless masses who live without crisp resolution every day of their lives.

So here’s to honesty, to truth, and to a better world.

Love, peace, and joy, my friends.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shamanism, Oh My!: Or, a Dissection of Spirituality in Fantasy

One of the most common (yet ironically controversial) axioms regarding “polite conversation” goes as follows: Stay away from politics and religion. Do not touch them with a hundred-foot vaulting pole. By extension, it seems that the vast majority of books (which are, let us be clear, intended to be sold to a curious yet faceless audience) would do well to veer away from these hot-button issues. Those who read my work will find a head-on confrontation with political issues, albeit in a fantasy-based context that takes heavy liberties with analogues and allegories. Spirituality, however, is where most of the veils are stripped away. Even the least attentive readers of my work will find themselves meandering through characters’ experiences of meditation, ego death, and so forth.

This is not a new trend, nor is it confined to the realm of eastern philosophy. CS Lewis and Tolkien constructed many of their stories within a Christian moral framework, and in recent years, we’ve seen stunning releases (The Golem and the Jinni immediately springs to mind) that draw from Judaism, Islam, pagan cultures, and every other religious system under the sun. There is, of course, a distinction to be made here. The authors of stories with spiritual elements do not always adhere to the religions they write about, and that’s A-okay. The world of literature has seldom been a battleground for asserting universal truths or dogmas.

In my own case, I was compelled to write a series that reflects many of my own beliefs and practices in “normal” life. No, that isn’t to say that I keep satyr-like creatures locked in my basement. Frank Herbert’s Dune was a tremendous influence on me, as it guided me toward meditation and a process of deep insight into the nature of fear, time, etc. When I initially started working on Scribes, I was rather lax in my meditative practice, and the book itself reflects this mild relationship with spirituality. Now that I’m neck-deep in writing the series’ third book, Scions, it’s fascinating to look back and examine how the protagonist’s journey has mirrored my own. I spend about as much time meditating as I do writing, and the two activities have become interwoven in countless ways.

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Readers who are well-versed in Hindu or Buddhist traditions (particularly Dzogchen and Vajrayana Buddhism) will find ample material that coincides with their own teachings or experiences, and I hope that these books can bridge the gap between spirituality and fantasy in a meaningful way, perhaps providing a dose of motivation that sidesteps the usual lectures or non-fiction texts.

Additionally, the primary motivation for involving spirituality in the series was to foster the same curiosity in others that Frank Herbert instilled in me. Sure, a fantasy or science-fiction book is a surface-level introduction to the innumerable philosophies and doctrines that exist throughout our world, but it’s something. My deepest hope is that at least one person will read through the book (hopefully series, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) and find themselves wondering if the book’s descriptions of bliss, cessation, etc., are truly possible for everyday people. I’ve been largely mum about my own beliefs until now, but as the eve of the first book’s release draws near, it seems impossible to avoid speaking about such a weighty and important topic.

This is not to say, of course, that I promote (or even enjoy) literature that reads more like a religious text than a genuine story. There’s a fine line between proselytizing and entertaining, and I hope that I’ve stayed well within my boundaries as a storyteller. People of all faiths should be able to take something important away from your story, even if it’s the intention to perform a single act of kindness in their community.

Tl;dr: Peace, love, and kindness, everybody.

P.S. If you still haven’t checked out Scribes, you can pre-order your copy (on Audible, e-reader, or in print) by clicking this thing!

Your Book is Published Now! (And People Hate It); Or, On Bad Reviews

Greetings, lovely people. It has been a fair while since I’ve posted anything here, largely because of working full time as a teacher (aka soaking up Winter Break in all its glory), but also because of general holiday food comas. At this hour I am composing my posts at a rate of four words per minute; the doctors assure me I will eventually move out of my Cheesecake Inebriation Phase (CIP).

That business aside, I wanted to touch on a topic that many writers may not consider when they’re knee-deep in the mud and guts of the writing trenches, expending both their time and energy on a project that may never see the light of (published) day. That topic is, on a philosophical level, something that speaks to the very nature of happiness, of fulfillment, of seeking and craving in all its forms. But that’s heavy territory, and while we may wander there someday, I’d prefer to boil it down to a microcosm for this blog:

People are going to HATE your book.

I don’t just mean that they’ll shrug and put it down, perhaps shelving it as DNF on Goodreads if they’re feeling ferocious. I mean they will hate itdespise itwish misery upon it and its kin. Media reviews often bring out the most vicious elements in a person’s arsenal of linguistic devastation, and those who frequent Amazon, Goodreads, and IMDB will find a cornucopia of examples to demonstrate this point.

As many of you know, my debut fantasy novel, SCRIBES, is set to drop a month from today. It will be the culmination of nearly three years of writing, rewriting, editing, missing sleep, querying, doubting, loathing, calling, e-mailing, wishing, begging. I got a wonderful agent (Lindsay Mealing!), a hell of a lot of experience, and a keen sense of patience out of it. That being said, the entire process has been a reminder that joy and excitement are temporary states, and that we as writers need to remember to slug on through the peaks and valleys of the journey, never becoming too attached to the elevation.

But more pertinent to today’s topic is the fact that the readers of your book will not know anything about the process of creating this work. They will not judge your book based upon the effort or love that you invested in it; after all, there are plenty of McWriters who churn out 5-10 new novels every year (often with the help of ghost writers), largely using recycled plot lines and cliches to truck their way into the Best Seller list. This isn’t to knock those writers—this is simply to state that the background work of composing and preparing your book is not relevant to the reader.

And because of that, your book will get shredded.

Yes, many people will praise your book and offer it full stars and tell their friends about it, but many, many others will take their time to eviscerate your book simply because they can. It’s their right, after all. Everybody has reasons and preferences when judging a book, and I have no authority to sway them, nor do I want it.

The reviews you remember, of course, are not the praising sort. They’re the soul-ripping, face-melting, one-star disembowelings.

As of the time of this post, my book has received a motley assortment of reviews on Goodreads. I must admit that SCRIBES is not a book for everybody. It’s a bit of a genre orphan, in some ways. I never wrote the book with an audience in mind, and I don’t regret that. But here’s the cliffnotes story of its birth, for you, the wonderful readers:

SCRIBES was conceived as a capstone project in my university, largely written in the apprenticeship (for lack of a better term) of Andre Dubus III, who you may know as the author of The House of Sand and Fog. It was written in equal parts during months of pure, ecstatic happiness, months of dealing with my first break-up, and months of moving to new countries and reshaping my entire life. It was a time when ideas and guiding principles were in flux, perhaps free-fall, and the book served as something of an anchor for rebuilding my path in life. Acquiring my agent was a wild process that deserves its own post, but rest assured, it was yet another explosion of emotions.

With that in mind, the book is a reflection of myself, of all the things that are important and worth sharing in my mind:

Occasional moments of depressing nuance straight from literary fiction; graphic, unsettling violence; elements of spirituality; the power and tenacity of the human spirit.

Whatever reviews the book receives are more than fine by me. If the ultimate goal of any art is to communicate something, to make somebody feel something when they engage with your work, then I’d say getting them to leave a review, any review at all, is a triumph. As long as the book reached inside and sparked something, what’s there to complain about?

To make it short and sweet, you (and every other writer) have a worldview and a philosophy worth sharing with the world. I urge everybody to look beyond the fear or disappointment of critical reviews, and to devote all of your energy into conveying your message as skillfully, earnestly, and deeply as possible.

Love and peace, my friends.

SCRIBES review copies now available!

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Greetings, friends and passing readers. I currently have five review codes available for SCRIBES, which is set to drop on February 20th. If you have any interest in reviewing the book (even to say that it murdered your family and deserves to be executed at dawn), just post a comment below and I’ll reach out to you! The review code will allow you to read on Kindle, Nook, or whatever else your heart desires.

Hope everyone’s enjoying the arctic conditions (except Australia and their damnable summer, of course).

Love and best wishes.

Become Disciplined Today, or Be Enslaved Forever

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One of the hardest topics to touch is discipline. It’s become a word mired in social memes and jokes: “Oh, my discipline is too weak. Pass me another beer.”

“I can’t go to the gym; my willpower is all gone.”

These are not objective facts. These are unconscious (or conscious) rejections of your own inner strength in favor of creature comforts. As biological creatures, we are ruled by the same basic genetic codes that have given rise to wolves, flies, spiders, and bats—all of whom act on instinct alone.

Human beings, by way of sentience, are in a position that is afforded to no other creature in our realm of experience. We are able to consciously reject instincts in favor of actions that we CHOOSE to undertake. Do not downplay this; do not destroy your own willpower.

To find out more about the slavery of “having fun,” check out this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQPgwtn5Lpk

Love, peace, and awakening to all beings!

3 Keys to Marketing your Novel

So, you’ve written a novel. Great—that’s 99% of the battle.

Or is it?

You see, in 2018 (the time of this post being written), marketing has become of the largest barriers to a book’s success or failure. It’s no longer enough to slave over a novel, edit it, ship it out, and wait for rave reviews and huge royalty checks to pile up. In this day and age, the market is so mind-boggling enormous (not to mention oversaturated with nonsense creative attempts) that even the next Hemingway will likely be forgotten under mounds of competing mailing lists and retweets.

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Assuming you’ve done your best to create a compelling, well-crafted story and ship it out into the world, the next stage is a bloodier, more visceral one: Marketing.

What I’ve compiled below is not a bible for book marketing, nor is it intended to be your average clickbait article with a dozen links to affiliate organizations that will ultimately suck your wallet dry and leave you sobbing. The three pieces of advice that I’ve put below are merely intended to be the trifecta of my “personal advice” collection, small though it may be. Marketing your novel is hard and inglorious and often frustrating, but most worthwhile things in life are, right? With no further ado, let’s get into it.

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Know your Audience (and Pitch to Them)

If you’ve written a real genre-bender (this is, as it happens, the case with my book Scribes), you’re fighting an uphill battle to appeal to the right crowd. People who typically indulge in vampire romance novels or sword-and-shield fantasy aren’t going to look twice at a mermaid-alternate-history romp through Byzantium. If they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll leave a positive review. In fact, the chances of them enjoying your book are stunningly low if you fail to recognize the core threads of why this audience likes their particular niche.

Taking from our earlier example, those who love sword-and-shield fantasy are, more often than not, looking for a sunny-sky ending with neat ends. They expect a hero to fight a clear, unambiguous manifestation of evil. They’ll probably also want a dose of chivalric romance thrown in. If your book is defying these conventions, you’ve not only disappointed the reader in terms of plot points, but also in regards to their moral compass, and, I daresay, their worldview. There’s a reason people seek comfort in genres that they enjoy and understand.

If your book is best described as a mashup of a superhero novel and a western, you’ll probably need to seek out readers that are willing to take a chance with the narrative and thematic elements of a novel. People who enjoy Westworld, perhaps. Or fans of Deadpool. Or fans of literally anything that defies the conventions that an average reader will demand. Don’t look for a one-to-one copy of your book’s content; look for works that tread similar ideological grounds and deal with crucial themes on equal footing.

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Take some Initiative

Another consequence of our highly connected and evolving world is that publishers simply can’t do all the work for you. This is a fact, and one you’re better making peace with sooner rather than later. Publishers often do their best to plug your work and get you into the spotlight, but that spotlight time is limited, fleeting, and hella expensive. Ultimately, this means that you’ll need to put your own time and energy (and likely funds) into building your brand. Consider it an opportunity to hone your marketing skills rather than as a punishment. After all, it’s your brand, so you ought to have some investment in it either way, no?

You probably know what you need to do for this stage, but you likely won’t want to put in that brow-sweat (I understand your reservations). Make a Twitter, make a Facebook page, make an Instagram, make a blog, make a flying banner, for all it’s worth! Those of you who are social media-phobic (again, I get you) are going to struggle a bit here. But there’s a real need to be “aggressive” in contacting reviewers, spreading awareness of your work, and marketing your novel in the least expected places (I’ve sold copies to the secretary at our international school, for example!). Don’t hesitate to reach out to bookstores or universities that you have some personal connection to. Everything and anything counts here.

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Keep your Chin Up

Marketing is a long-term game, not a make-a-buck-and-dash scheme. You’ll need to sit in front of your phone/keyboard/tablet for hours on end, for weeks on end, for years on end, to build a brand that’s worth any attention. Don’t get discouraged if views don’t roll in, or if your initial feedback is sub-par at best. Nobody succeeds fully on their first time around, and this is especially true when it comes to selling a novel and building a brand image. Have faith and confidence in your own abilities. Be adaptive. Reach out to fellow writers and readers to make meaningful connections that go beyond the nebulous (and often repulsive) webs of soulless marketing practices.

Above all else, keep writing. Remember why you entered this craft to begin with. If you came for fame, glory, and money, you picked the wrong path. Write for the hell of it, and don’t stop going.

 

Peace, love, and joy, my friends.

PS the second novel in The Scribe Cycle, SCHISMS, is set to drop in July! Grab a copy here, or grab the first book, SCRIBES, on sale here. Your support means a lot.

SCRIBES is out—Audible codes ready!

Greetings, everybody! A few days overdue on announcing this here, but as many of you know, SCRIBES has finally been released!

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Thanks to everybody who has supported me in the long road to release, and even further thanks to those who have purchased a copy (which can be found here, for anybody who’s curious!).

In addition, I have several Audible codes that can be redeemed at checkout. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch!

Love, peace, and best wishes.