This is part 4 of the Visionary Fiction as Personal Therapy Series inspired by an article on bibliotherapy by Debbie McCullis in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Poetry Therapy. In part 1, we discussed recognition, which is when a reader experiences a sense of familiarity while reading. In part 2, visionary fiction authors expressed their feelings of recognition while they were writing their stories. In part 3, various authors discussed how they reacted to issues in books they read. Today we will discuss juxtaposition, which is when a reader develops insight from the books they have read.
Inspirational books remain with us long after we read them. Sometimes the text speaks to our souls, extracting truths that have been hidden from our awarenesses. When recognition first strikes, we get a sense of familiarity, as if what we’ve read is something we’ve already known. Some of us might experience elation, others dread, especially if what is pulled out from us is something that challenges our world views. For those of us courageous enough to continue examining the truth that was drawn out of us, we develop insights—at times powerful enough to change our world views and even the course of our lives. I asked some of my author friends about insights they gleaned from books they’ve read. Following are their responses.
Although I had read a few works of Parwez in English, I learned much more from translating him over a number of years. It was challenging work, since I am not fluent in Urdu and so I always had to co-translate with my father, but this also afforded me the opportunity to slow down and think much more deeply about what I was reading. Parwez was looking at some big questions about life and reality. Along the way I discovered a new worldview – one that linked the human quest for a so-called “ideal” society to the unlocking of human potential. While finding some satisfactory answers for myself – in my own self-study as well as from Parwez and also others including Iqbal – the old identity issues that used to bother me faded away, and these were replaced by a new sense of self-assuredness and purpose of being. Best of all, they opened up new and more exciting avenues of exploration, and these were soon to be applied in what was then my fledgling novel. (Website)
Books that have given me deep insights are many and one that remains deeply embedded in my mind is The Wizard of Earthsea. Although a fantasy the struggles of the young wizard are those of all of us seeking some understanding of the unseen and the powerful in our lives.
Much more recently I read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (2012). Her story retells a profound fairy tale and involves the same tale in the narrative. As a piece of writing it is a tour de force. As visionary fiction it has to be one of the best examples, because the snow child in her tale changes the lives of all around her. For a long time in the story you are kept guessing as to what is real and what is imaginary – which is a challenge for all visionaries. Are they/we self-deluded. Or are they/we seeing a deeper reality that it is our gift and duty to bring to the attention of those who are not looking!
Reading What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada by Walpola Rahula taught me about the Buddha, and how he became liberated by eradicating all past conditionings by searching for the truth within himself. To explain how I gained insight from this book I have to reveal the foundational elements that led up to it. At the time, I had given up all forms of religion in search of spiritual truth. I told myself I would not believe in anything unless I experienced it for myself. This declaration came after I had my kundalini awakening. All the different viewpoints of what a kundalini awakening meant made me realize they were subjective narratives of personal experiences. If I attempt to explain what happened to me by attaching a symbolic meaning from a religion, my explanation would also be subjective. In essence, I would be attaching a symbol to my experience because of a bias toward a particular religion. That is not truth, at least not from my understanding of it.
When I read What the Buddha Taught, I was stunned to discover that my spiritual journey was similar to the Buddha’s. Although our motivations were different, we both abandoned past beliefs and intense spiritual experiences to search for the truth. He found his truth. I found my truth, the only truth I can ever know…that absolute truth is an illusion. The only truth I can experience is the experience itself. I sense a divine presence, but I use this description for context only. For me, spirituality is about the experience, knowing I had a kundalini awakening and knowing I can consciously work with the energy. That’s enough for me, and that was my insight. The end of my quest for definitive answers liberated me and made me happier.
In my last contribution to this series re the immediate impact of reading a VF work that led me to deeper examination, I worked with my primary interest, reincarnation, and the novel The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) by Max Erlich. To show how a VF novel can then go from examination to insight, per the scheme under study here, I’ll stay with Peter Proud.
With its serious presentation of reincarnation as fact rather than curiosity or fantasy, which goaded me to firstly pause and think, “Hmm, what if there is actually something to this?” Peter Proud then flipped open a Pandora’s Box that challenged just about everything important I had come to believe that far in my young life. Having been indoctrinated from birth with an eschatology (which the Oxford English dictionary defines as “the department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’”) that I never dared question, I couldn’t consider an eschatological alternative like reincarnation without questioning my previous dependence on external authority. Before I could think about something as far out as reincarnation, I had to give myself permission to think for myself; and then, more radically, to hold two opposing interpretations about some really important stuff (death, judgment, heaven and hell—it doesn’t get more dire than those four horses) in my mind at the same time. Finally, I would have to choose between the alternatives, based on my experience, or suspend judgment until more data became available. Fortunately, all this mental and spiritual angst did not hit in one sitting; it took me years to migrate from dependence on authority to the courage to embrace the best “truth” I could glean from personal education, experimentation, and experience.
I clearly remember the day I faced the inevitable question: what if I am wrong? And the best possible answer: better a self-created error, which I could reverse or correct, than someone else’s truth, which I could not adjust simply because I can’t change someone else. No bones about it, it is freaking scary to march to the beat of your own drum rather than repeat the tried-and-true tunes that “everybody already knows.” To my credit—although I have to confess to often glancing over my shoulder for lightning bolts or closing my ears to the chorus of boos—I decided to give reincarnation a look-see and—who would have guessed it?—it became my life’s passion, the one thing I would rather think, speak, and write about ahead of just about anything else. (Website)
Besides revelations and deeper meanings, I thought of a very basic kind of insight gained from reading fiction. This is in-sight, a vision of something inside me, within my mind. My imagination! We all recognize the way a vivid description, an evocative setting, or a character introduction triggers pictures inside our mind during reading. I am cursed with a hyper-active imagination, but reading a novel is a safe way of flexing my in-sight muscle. In-sight does not have to be visual. I am not particularly a visual thinker; in guided meditations or chakra readings the images that come are murky. But the thoughts accompanying them are clear. Like other visionary experiences, in-sight can be clairvoyant (clear images), or clairsentient (clear thoughts). So in our imaginations, reading makes us all in-sightful visionaries. Goodread’s Site
Next month’s installment will be the last in the series. We will discuss how we apply insight learned into our lives.
Eleni Papanou is an award-winning author and perpetual student of life. Visit her website for news and updates