Voluptua: A Novel

Image of Voluptua: A Novel
Author(s):
Release Date:
June 1, 2013
Publisher/Imprint:
Turn the Page Publishing
Pages:
247
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“The writing is weak. Somewhere amid the tangle of words and images is the potential for a novel, but not in this fictional effort.”

Voluptua is a novel about an inner search. Nothing wrong with that. After all Virginia Woolf wrote “we (writers of fiction) should make use of whatever comes our way.”

Author of Voluptua Jason Martin is a lifelong academic, a professor of French and Comparative Literature, and for the past 20 years an involvement in Amazonian shamanism. Perhaps he would have been better served writing a memoir of his life’s journey, because this is not a novel but a thinly disguised effort at making fiction from personal experience.

The crafting is transparently obvious, even amateurish. As a novelist and memoirist I know the effort involved in creative undertakings. And many novels are exactly what Woolf asks for: fictionalized attempts at conveying life experience, but author Martin’s endeavor does not succeed as fiction.

Rather Voluptua is a critique of the pettiness, intrigue, and sexual adventures that often accompany academic life. In the latter sections the book becomes a series of lectures on Amazonian shamanism served up in digestible bites to the 29-year-old protagonist, Ellen, as she transitions from “the prison” of academia to the mind-blowing “freedom” of inner exploration using a powerful natural hallucinogen, the ayahuasca brew.

Ellen travels to Iquitos, Peru, to find the “right” shaman to guide her before she begins experimenting with this psychedelic inducing drink brewed from various Amazonian native plant infusions. But in first half of the novel we are subjected to Ellen’s sexual experimentation with other professors, seedy Cuban gigolos, even an Indonesian janitor. Later in the book under the influence of ayahuasca she has phantasmagoric sex with four identical men.

Evocation of the Amazonian jungle setting likewise does not pass muster—not if you have read powerful novels of that locale such as Ann Patchett’s recently published State of Wonder set in Manaus, Brazil with its famous oddity, a full blown European opera house built at the juncture of the Negro and Solimões rivers in the Amazon basin. This landscape comes to fictionalized life with every visit to the opera house, every turn of the river, and every insect filled encounter of her protagonist’s journey. Martin’s Iquitos remains flat on the page, a flimsy film set of cardboard cut outs.

One can sum up Voluptua thus: A young academic teaches French Literature at a small liberal arts college among malicious, sensationalist peers who indulge in sexual machinations. She has dreams of traveling to Peru to try something she has recently learned about: a natural psychedelic concoction: ayahuasca.

She pursues the hallucinogen to unleash her “better” self but hesitates when she knows that ingesting ayahuasca involves much vomiting (“purging.”) Eventually she undertakes both the physical and metaphysical journeys and throws up—a lot.

Jason Martin has done neither himself nor the city of Iquitos and Amazonian shamanism a favor in publishing this book. The writing is weak. Somewhere amid the tangle of words and images is the potential for a novel, but not in this fictional effort.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/voluptua-novel#sthash.2mk80FLP.boBxGdYP.dpuf

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Winter Solstice 2012

 

Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be,center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear.

–Lama Surya Das, Dzogchen Center, Austin, Texas

 

Season’s Greetings, I decided this year instead of a rundown of where I have been and whom I was with, and what I saw and what I didn’t see. As well as what happened to me and what didn’t happen, I’ll share two useful “message” out of the hundreds that come my way each year. The first is from one of my Buddhist meditation teachers, Lama Surya Das. How often this year I have heard these words in my head “breathe, relax, center and smile.” It is such a powerful mantra, and so useful as a centering or attention practice.     

The other (below) came my way from another teacher, Lawrence Hillman, who quotes the Apple visionary, Steve Jobs (who literally changed our world). I love Jobs’ imagery of connecting the dots of our lifelines.

My heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a healthy and fulfilling 2013. May we all “connect the dots” awaiting us and learn a little more about where we are going.

Steve Jobs once said,  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

At this threshold moment in history, I wish to remind you that nobody can predict what will come in the future and that if you trust that part of you that knows this, you will connect the dots in due time.

–Lawrence Hillman

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Several times a year, with permission, I use this blog space to share student responses to what they are learning in my classroom. This is the response of a high school senior to an introduction to meditation practice.

1. The Universal Breath

The diamond mind of sharp, concentrated focus and the profound physical state of relaxation create a terrifyingly brilliant experience. Meditation, deeply and intricately connected to Eastern philosophical cultures, allows an individual to follow one’s own breath to find an inner state of harmony and to develop an awareness of one’s basic goodness. Compassion for one’s self and others is crucial in a harmonious society.  Through meditation, guided by the breath, one can leave the chaos and distractions of the external world for inner tranquility.  Few things are universal. However, the gentle inhale and exhale of breath, bringing oxygen to the bloodstream and thus enabling life is a common, shared experience throughout the human species.  In accordance with Eastern teachings, inner goodness—or the innate and natural tendency toward good—exists within every person, just like the breath.  With attention to the breath, one can journey to find ones inner goodness and gain the experiential knowledge that comes from meditating.

2. Confusion or Liberation

Many teachings of philosophy incorporate a metaphor indicative of the closed minded nature of the majority of human beings, whether it is the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s The Republic—where all the people watching the shadows on the walls of the cave are in utter disbelief of the world outside and shun the man who has seen beyond—or, as depicted in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the people who cannot look within themselves to find their own inner goodness and instead live in fear of themselves and the world around them.  Our consciousness manifests within the universe in two distinctive states: confusion or liberation.  Liberation is the state of enlightenment and meditation is the means by which one can access such a state of internal clarity, peace, and harmony.  As outlined in Shambhala, basic goodness is the innate good of “being alive” regardless of more material things such as “accomplishments or fulfilling our desires.” To acknowledge basic goodness is to recognize our “actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” Through meditation, one can become awake, acknowledge the superficiality of society while maintaining an unshakable understanding of true, basic goodness. Meditation has given me a refuge as I have seen a glimpse of the universe within myself.

3. The Essence of Now-ness

A spiritual warrior is “one who is brave” and such bravery must manifest in “the tradition of fearlessness”; “ultimately…the definition of bravery [is] not being afraid of yourself.” I often feel disconnected and almost alienated from the world around me when my mind and body are pulled in different directions and even divisions of my mind—my heart, my soul, my conscious attention, my focus, etc—are at odds with one another.  In a chaotic world, it is easy to fall victim to compelling and yet opposing forces.  If one allows this to happen, the luxury of introspection is lost, as is the awareness of basic goodness. As “synchronizing mind and body is looking and seeing directly beyond language”, I find meditation weds my deepest, most profound inner conflict: how to understand science and religion in relation to one another.  The answer, lies within the gentle, peaceful harmony that is buried within each of our chests and can be traced to the gentle rise and fall of the chest with each deep inhale and each beautiful exhale.

Poet Li-Young Lee speaks about the power of the breath and how, when one pays attention to it and trains oneself to go beyond the shallow, superficial few seconds we have usually allot each breath, one can change their perspective.  With deep breath comes deep thought.  Reality transforms as we ground ourselves to be present in each moment as our lungs fill to their full capacity.  Meditation is a perpetual state of introspective focus, the union of body and mind, and comes to find peace within reality.  To be afraid of nothing is to be “experiencing that very moment of your state of mind, which is the essence of ‘now-ness’.”

4. Meditation—Access to Clarity and Alleviation of Fear

Throughout our guided meditations, I have become deeply invested in the experiential aspects of learning.  My personal experiences have been profound. In the first meditation, I focused intently on the breath.  I felt my lungs open as my posture improved, my shoulders rolled back and my head aligned with my spine. As breath pushed my diaphragm out, and my focused dropped from the tension of worldly thoughts, I felt the bright warmth of light radiate within my chest cavity.  To articulate my experience in the most juvenile of manners, I felt a tingle, an excitement that radiated from my concentration and my breath that I experienced as a child when waiting for Santa Claus to come, with his mystical reindeer and brightly wrapped presents, on Christmas Eve.  In coming out of the first mediation, I found it curious to equate the two experiences, but as I internalized the innate sensation, I realized that I found hope, pure joy, or, ultimately, unadulterated goodness through meditation.  As a child, this sensation is easily accessible, as we are not so grounded in the superficial realities we engage in later.  However, as we grow up, we fall into our roles in society, becoming fearful of the back corners of our minds.  Meditation is our access to clarity and alleviation of fear.

My second experience meditating came to me when I heard our teacher say, “Good, the energy in the room is much better now” as everyone’s focus had dropped from their heads to their bodies.  In a focused trance  I had forgotten those around me.  As I heard the vibrations of her voice, reminding me of their presence, I shifted my focus to the energies in the room.  Immediately, from the blank, dark of my mind, a spiraling gold light materialized, twisting towards me.  Shocked, I abandoned the image and dropped down to the breath once again.

Back in class, we spoke about transformational figures and monks who had devoted their entire lives to meditation.; we spoke of how those individuals have an incredible presence and that their goodness emanates from them at all times.  On some level, I believe that everyone has an energy that radiates from within.  Without the clutter of language and the trivialities of words exchanged, we can sense others’ presences as I intensely experienced in my meditation. Through meditation, we can find the true, good energy within ourselves and channel it.  The Dalai Lama responded in the movie “Kundun” when asked if he was the Lord Buddha, “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”  In this manner, each person has unknown, universal goodness within themselves that can be reflected in the eyes of others.

5. Harmony Between Mind and Body

In abandoning fear, in diving within myself, in finding harmony between body and mind, I have unearthed a compassion for those around me, as well as for myself. Fear inhibits our potential beyond belief and above my desk, I have the quote “Be fearless: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” as a constant reminder that so often, the bars of our cages—cages that define our social and cultural experiences in life—are fashioned from our own thoughts of fear and apprehension.  To release oneself from such negativity is to sit gently on the earth and allow the soul to reunite with the sky, to find harmony between body and mind is to access basic goodness.  To meditate is to find “drala”: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that [go] beyond any dualism.” Meditation allows me to understand my ego and the societal cultivation of empty materialism so as to align myself with the metaphysical or the universal spirit of goodness.  Through meditation, I see myself, and those around me in relation to the earth and the sky.

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Eight Myths About Meditation

Recently I taught a unit on Eastern philosophy and spirituality to a group of high school seniors. In order for them to fully understand and appreciate what we were reading and discussing we began a multi-week series of meditation sessions. Most of them had never meditated; a few had experienced some form of relaxation or visualization practice with various athletic coaches. I have taught meditation practice for many years to all ages and was heartened, even thrilled, by the responses of these eighteen year olds, future leaders of our world. (I use some of their comments, with permission, in this article.)

Myth #1: Meditation is not a way to relax

Relaxation is one of the benefits of developing a regular meditation practice. Guided by a skillful teacher, you learn to relax tension in head muscles, particularly the jaw, and neck and shoulder muscles. A correct posture, achieved by imagining a piece of string kept taut and coming from above and moving down the back of the top of the head and spinal column, helps to hold the head and shoulders back allowing for the chest cavity to open, more air to circulate in the lungs, and for the great solar plexus muscle between the lungs and the abdomen to act as a bellows.

It is important to sit with a straight back either on the floor or ground or in a chair with your hands loosely resting on your knees. As more oxygen enters the blood stream, every cell is fully energized. Fingers and toes tingle. Breath deepens and slows. After only some practice a relaxed body allows for inner mental spaciousness and lays the ground to begin intensive concentration practices—for beginners usually based on the reference point of the rise and fall of the breath—until you feel confident that you can concentrate on the breath with single-minded attention.

Myth #2: Meditation does not sync the mind and body

One of my students wrote that by focusing on the breath our mind and body synchronize, increasing our blood flow, oxygen intake, and even mental capacity. Meditation is about simplicity. Every person has reasons to be happy, reasons to be thankful, and finding them is as easy as focusing on the one common gift everyone can be thankful for: the breath.

Myth #3: Meditation practices do not sharpen the mind

Concentration practices are among the most intense mental exercises you will undertake. It is normal for the mind to be filled ceaselessly with thoughts. As you are able to concentrate more and more on the breath and like a laser beam shine a thin intense ray of concentration onto your breath, yoking your mind with the breath, you become more aware of the frantic nature of your roiling thoughts. Do not tense the mind to reject the thoughts, rather practice what one of my meditation teachers called “Teflon” mind; do not let anything stick. As thoughts, emotions, memories, the whole of our internal Easter parade floats by, name the thought and let it go. After only a few sessions of this practice, and using the breath as a constant reference point—“come back to the breath”—I will remind students again and again, you will find that your mind becomes clear and diamond sharp. Relaxed body and concentrated mind is what we are practicing.

Myth #4: Meditation is not a focusing activity

Another student wrote that our class meditation was deeply relaxing but also a focusing activity. He describes how in deep meditation all perception of space melted away, even the perception of where parts of his body were. By stripping away concentration to the outside world, he was left with only the feeling of existence. He reports that this psychological presence was the simplest and most elegant form of existence.

Myth #5: Meditation does not heighten awareness of the present moment

In a deep, relaxed but concentrated state it is easier to accept the idea that all we have to experience is each precious individual moment. We can let go of the past and not worry about the future. We begin to realize that every prior moment was necessary to bring us to this present one, and this chain of continuity can be relied on until the last nano-second that we are breathing.

Myth #6: Meditation does not allow for a sense of inter-connection with the world

Meditation allows us to have a penetrating connection with the world through the realization that we all exist in the same ocean of breath—we breathe the same air and are interconnected through this simple act. This realization allows us to feel connected in a new and vital way. We breathe the same air as Hitler, Idi Amin, Gandhi and Mother Teresa. A student states that through just one simple breath you embrace the wholeness of the earth and all of its creatures, becoming part of something greater than just self.

Myth #7: Meditation does not encourage a sense of well-being

One student eloquently describes this sense of well-being. He writes, so for me, meditation is an act that is passionately active, one that bases its practice on improving the human condition, on bettering the well-being of others around us. When I end a session on meditation, I can already feel the effect that a mode of deep contemplation and reflection has on me. For one, with my body relaxed and at ease, I am naturally happier; I am more prone to laugh, to smile, and to interact with others. And with my mind cleared of the clutter, I possess a natural tendency to exude a feeling of optimism that catches on with those around me. Thus meditation influences others and me.

Myth #8: Meditation does not bring the freeing power of meditative perception

This student offers a powerful summation of her experience. (Possibly all our experiences.) She writes that by letting go of my body, but also being completely aware and grounded in my seat, I feel I was able to connect to some greater power. Coming out of meditation I was often astonished by the greatness of humanity and all it could achieve with the possible realization and development and gentleness that accompanies this type of enlightenment. It is essential that we realize the power of our perception, because I have learned that ultimately, it is in my power alone to control and make peace with everything I face, because what I choose to believe in can be all that exists.

 

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Every year in my philosophy classes (high school seniors) when I teach Plato’s The Republic students grapple with Socrates’ notion of happiness. Before we reach that part of the text we do an exercise. As class begins and without any time to think about their response, I ask students to write down a 1 or 2 sentence definition of happiness. We each write our response on the board and consider the connections (or not) we can find. Here is a sample list in no particular order.

Happiness is the continual pursuit of life.

Happiness is the advancement of wholeness.

Happiness the fount of satisfaction.

Happiness is the freedom from reactivity.

Photo: © Janet Levine, Varanasi, 2007

Happiness is the balance of struggle and reward.

Happiness is nothing more and nothing less.

Happiness is love for self, others, and whatever circumstance arises.

Happiness is the uncontrollable feeling of contentment.

Happiness is doing what you want.

Happiness is having no regrets.

Happiness is the sensation felt in the body when a person acts according to what they believe is good.

Happiness is the state of personal, communal, and spiritual fulfillment.

Scanning the list one sees there are many sentiments both Socrates and the Buddha would commend. Did Socrates know of the Buddha’s teachings? There is no doubt about that in my mind. But that is a topic for another occasion. What does the Buddha say about happiness? Here is the Metta Sutra (teaching) of the Buddha.

“May all beings be happy and at their ease. May they be joyous and live in safety. All beings, omitting none, whether weak or strong; small or great; in high, middle or low realms of existence; near or far away; visible or invisible; born or to-be born. May all beings be happy and at their ease. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none wish harm to another. But even as a mother loves , watches over, and protects her child, her only child; so may all with a boundless mind cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world without limit. May we cultivate a boundless goodwill, free from ill-will or enmity, and maintain the sublime abiding of this recollection.”

What is your definition of happiness? Use the comment form below. I am most interested to learn.

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What is Time? Such a seemingly simple question but it can lead to intensely elusive searches for a concept that defies easy answers. Sure we have schedules, and clocks, and calendars based by our ancient forebears on their observations of the wheeling stars and planets. But we also have so many postulations by so many philosophers and cosmologists and various scientists that one’s head can spin from it all. What is Time? Some say Time is a synonym for God. Others that Time is change. Saint Augustine said a thousand years ago, “Intuitively I know what time is, but if you ask me to explain time to you I cannot do so.” What is Time? If all human life disappeared from this planet would Time cease to exist? In other words does our consciousness conceive of Time or does it exist whether we are here or not?

A woman in Soweto, South Africa, a tour guide for a group of harried Americans, wanted to stop at a museum but was asked “Do we have time?” She answered, “I don’t know if you have time. I know you have watches…and I know I have time.”

T.S. Eliot one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century wrote one of his master works The Four Quartets as an exploration into Time. In Burnt Norton, one of the quartets he writes, “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past./…all time is eternally present…”

All time is eternally present. What you need to know is that Eliot studied Eastern spirituality as an undergraduate at Harvard and had in depth knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. One of the Buddha’s seminal teachings is that Time is an unceasing succession of transient nanoseconds through which our lives pass and of which passage we need to be aware as our ephemeral future so rapidly becomes our fleeting past. Or in other more colloquial words we need to live in the present moment. Not the past. Not the future. But the present moment. To be truly alive we need to bring all our attention and awareness to every moment of our lives: to our loves, our activities, our preoccupations, our commute, to our emotions, to eating, bathing and on and on. Then perhaps we can begin to understand what Time is and what Time is not.

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My new book, a novel, “Leela’s Gift” has been released. In fact it can be viewed at http://lulu.com/spotlight/JLevine1. It will soon be (early August) available at amazon.com and many online venues where book are sold as well as in book stores (remember www.indiebound.org and independent book stores). “Leela’s Gift” is the story of a luminous inner spiritual  journey. It is set in New York and high in the Himalayas near Darjeeling in northern India. The novel uncovers archetypal and highly relevant spiritual teachings. East meet west in Leela. The book offers teachings on meditation and yoga,  practical paths to freedom from the often dispiriting and desperate quality of our contemporary lives. The novel intertwines Leela’s journey with modern philosophy  and primal wisdom and is infused with some of the inner teachings of Buddhism and the Enneagram. “Leela’s Gift” tells a story as old as the human heart.

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