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When I first attended a Buddhist weekend retreat I was asked to bring with me something which was significant or held meaning for me. It took me a long time to think of anything that fitted this description, but after some reflection I remembered the ‘Litany against Fear’ from Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’, a book that had been very important to me in my teenage years:
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will allow it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
The night before I left for the dry Spanish valley where I was to spend four months on my ordination retreat I felt compelled to watch David Lynch’s (notoriously poor) movie of the book (this was before the Sci-Fi Channel’s diligent, but uninspiring mini-series). Then, a few years later, I led a weekend retreat exploring the novel, as a way of looking at the myths and symbols of science fiction and the extent to which they might be useful in terms of spiritual practice.
I have come to deeply value the role of myth and the imagination within my own spiritual practice, but had noticed that a number of my friends found the whole area completely mystifying. It seemed more than a coincidence that many of these people seemed to be fans of science fiction. My aim for the weekend was to help people to make the connection between the myths that they were responding to in sci-fi, and the mythical aspects of life and spiritual practice. It seems that for many people living in a world marked by scientific reductionism and utilitarian literalism, the world of the imagination can appear to be in the future, or ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.’
Traditionally science fiction has not been a particularly refined genre – in the sci-fi books I read in my teens and twenties, the qualities of writing and of character development were often poor, and violence and cruelty were common themes. It has also been a particularly obvious outlet for wish fulfilment, or for the articulation of contemporary views – the Cold War led to a huge number of ‘alien threat’ novels and movies during the fifties and sixties, and more recently political correctness has brought us the elected Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode 1.
At its best, however, the freedom to define new social and political systems, and even change the laws of physics (Captain!), can allow science fiction writers to introduce archetypal figures and explore the nature of the human condition in a way which is not possible in more socially realistic fiction. In this way I believe it is possible for sci-fi to provide a launching pad into the imaginal realm. Thankfully, contemporary writers have begun to marry high standards of writing with this complexity of concepts – although I don’t read much fiction these days I’d particularly recommend Neal Stephenson‘s genre-busting books.
Those who are chronically averse to science fiction are unlikely to become converts, but if you have nurtured a secret affection for sci-fi then perhaps you can begin to have the courage to come out of the galactic closet. Ultimately it may be that science fiction can even be useful in helping us to see how those that we perceive as ‘alien’ are in fact no different from ourselves.
Frank Herbert, 1965 (published by New English Library)
Set in a feudal society of the far distant future the novel charts its protagonist’s maturation and fourfold initiation: firstly to Duke, then to manhood and leadership, to prescient super-being and ultimately to Emperor. Herbert interweaves his twin interests in psychology and ecology through the symbolic aspects of the story, such as the desert planet Arrakis (the ‘Dune’ of the title) and its giant sandworms, as well as through the themes and characters. These themes include the integration of masculine and feminine, and the principles of prescience and memory. The hero’s teachers are classic Jungian archetypes, and the desert planet is peopled by the wild and fierce Fremen, who live in rock warrens, and hoard water which will one day allow them to catalyse an ecological transformation of the planet. There is also the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood who manipulate religions and genetic lines through the use of their greatly heightened powers of awareness.
As a teenager it was this combination of the psychological and ecological which appealed to me, and I was particularly struck by the incredible acuity of perception of the Bene Gesserit – a faculty I now know as mindfulness. In ‘Dune’ Herbert achieved a level of symbolic truth which surpasses anything else he ever wrote, and it is this symbolic content more than the subtlety of his concepts which makes it a great novel.
I was doing some house-keeping on my computer this morning and came across this piece, which I wrote for the Buddhist Arts magazine Urthona about a decade ago – I’ve tweaked it slightly to bring it up to date a bit. I’d love to hear your recommendations for good sci-fi – ancient or modern.
Another great book summary from my friends at Coaching on Call which explains the consequences of a lack of mindfulness.
- Increase in technology – remote distractions and modes of communication (email, texts, messaging, internet searches, etc.)
- We’re hard wired to respond to social messaging and expanding our awareness of the group(s) we relate to – so we unconsciously scan for information all the time
- We crave information because it makes us feel more comfortable – multiple sources of confirmation increases our confidence in our choices
- The illusion of achievement – the buzz of activity makes us feel productive and needed
- Consciously approach one task at a time and stick with it. If the task is too large, chunk it down into sub-tasks and aim to complete these one at a time
- Take regular short breaks – preferably in the outdoors as frequent exposure to nature is shown to enhance receptivity and even increase IQ
- Know when to close your door to avoid interruption and use this time to focus intently on the task in hand
- Be clear about what information is useful and be on guard against just seeking more and more confirmation of what you have already decided in order to make you feel good – rather, seek out information that challenges you and therefore helps you make better decisions
- Check email / voice messages at pre-determined times rather than being constantly interrupted by them throughout the day
This is another book summary from my friends at Coaching On Call
- Understand that there is a biological reason for the Why being so powerful -committed decision-making and inspiration to action is governed by the limbic brain, which controls emotion. In contrast, our response to the What is a function of the neo-cortex, or rational brain which is less potent in motivating us to action
- Articulate your Why in terms of verbs rather than nouns – for example, when articulating values, instead of ‘integrity’ say ‘always doing the right thing’; instead of ‘innovation’ say ‘looking at the problem from a different angle’. As Sinek says, it’s hard to hold people accountable to abstract nouns!
- Start with Why, but then be clear about the How and the What – no matter how visionary or brilliant, a great idea or product isn’t worth anything if nobody buys it. Inspire others to action by telling them why you do what you do, then align the Why with the How and the What, because, as Thomas Edison said, ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’
My friends at Coaching on Call email out regular book summaries. They don’t have their own blog yet, so I thought I’d post a few on here.
Make a choice – wake up and stop being a sheep!
Do your work as a gift – not to please your boss but because it makes you happier. Godin calls this ‘art’, which in this context is an act of personal courage, something that one human does that creates change in another.
You need to overcome the resistance of your reptilian brain – the part of you that wants to stay safe by conforming and avoiding anything that might make you stand out. The paradox is that the more you hide, the riskier it actually is.
Complete tasks – a real linchpin doesn’t just have ideas or start projects, they also see them right through to the end and deliver on the details.