February 20, 2018

Book Review || The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown

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I took Mick Brown's 'The Spiritual Tourist' out of the library hoping for a sort of introduction to the Asian spirituality with which the Western world has been obsessed with. I have always considered myself a spiritual person, always planning to meditate and do more Yoga but I never seem to get around to it, lacking the motivation that such practices are purported to inspire in those who are regular practitioners.

After last January's trip to the Nanhua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit for its Chinese New Year festival, I was awed by the level of reverence in the quiet spaces of the temple. At the reception, you were welcomed with a stick of incense, which you could take to the altar of 1000 Buddhas and deposit in a massive holder with your own short prayer or devotion. But I found myself unsure of what to ask for and what to say thank you for. Which is not a very good situation to be in.

So I perused the shelves of the library for something to lead me and, while I'm not sure 'The Spiritual Tourist' was the appropriate selection, it ended up in my book bag heading for home. The autobiography was first published almost a decade ago, so it is a little outdated, particularly since some of the spiritual icons he managed to meet or attempted to visit have passed on, including Share International's Benjamin Creme and Sathya Sai Baba, and the Western reincarnation of revered Lama Thubten Yeshe, Lama Osel, rejected his destiny to become a filmmaker instead. But Brown's journey is a reflection of all of those who yearn for there to be something more than the day to day drudgery of faith - something that reaches within us and consoles us in our humanity, fragility, mortality.

Brown's journey begins in London where he suddenly, and perhaps coincidentally, seems set upon by Sathya Sai Baba - he notices portraits of the guru everywhere he goes. The final straw is when he receives a letter from a friend of his with a portrait of Baba inside, but when he tries to find the photograph again, he cannot. He jumps on a plane and heads for Puttaparthi in India, setting off his travels around the world to meet as many gurus and lamas and reincarnations as he can. Lucky him, I say. Not many can meet the people to whom they look for guidance. While he doesn't actually meet Baba, he does meet Lama Osel (still as a young boy) and Mother Meera, the 14th Dalai Lama, and an assortment of people who are more familiar with the search than he is and who possibly give him the most answers. The book is filled with the history of religions and spiritual groups such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and theosophy, so in this way it is helpful to set the different movements apart for those looking for something in particular.

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Flickr/Alina Sofia [CC by 2.0]
For whomever Brown met who was familiar with his chosen spirituality, the answers about what our purpose was and how we could transcend the mortal coil were all the same, across all of them: Love of your fellow man, Service to your fellow man, Acceptance of your Own Divinity. A bit tough for many of us to see through as we watch the news, say goodbye to rainforests and animals, and become overrun by the very Western angst.

But what struck me the most in reading this book is the disappointing influence of the West, capitalism, and even the entire touristy experience described. For the latter, the thousands of people who descended on Sai Baba's temple in a single day, placed in lines, praying for the mere acknowledgement of Baba, being disappointed with only a few minutes of just his presence before he leaves, and then seeing the squalor of the local people who live just outside his door, who either beg for help or try to sell trinkets bearing Sai Baba's face - it feels so hollow just reading it. Perhaps it's a different experience being there. But perhaps not:
'In bars and hotel rooms across India you could see the Western ideal being transmitted on Star television, with its shoddy American and Australian soap-operas and glib Hollywood fantasies, its endless cycle of commercials for the products of the global supermarket which few in India could afford, but more nd more now dream of ... with a strident message: 'Your Right to Choose', educating this new, entranced audience in the role of advertising as the lubrican of a consumer society. To the sophisticated eye it had all the crudeness of propaganda. In a Madras newspaper I read an evalutaiton by a government psychiatrist predicting that india would soon be suffering the same incidence of mental illness as the West. The shelves of American self-help books in Madras's largest bookshop, offering advice on maximising the power of positive thinking and contacting your inner-child, suggest the problem was bringing its own 'cure'.
It is a good thing that books like 'The Spiritual Tourist' exist. They give an insight into the world and the thing we seek much more than we could have received and they show us that all the knowledge in the world is at our fingertips, and, possibly, even within ourselves.
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February 14, 2018

Popular Culture || What Did I Think of Girls (All Six Seasons)?

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I spent last week binge-watching the entire oeuvre of Lena Dunham's Girls. The series has been highly-acclaimed by critics, being rated 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and 87% on Metacritic as of writing. I am glad I waited for the series to finish up before watching it and while the show has some interesting aspects, I'm happy I didn't waste too much time worrying over it for the last six years, because I can't believe it went on for as long as it did.

If you haven't seen it yet, it's about Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa, four late-millennial friends who live in New York with the hopes of reaching their dreams. The problem is that none of them really know what it is they truly want to do or who they want to do it with. Hannah is the lead of the show. She wants to be a writer but can do nothing but talk about it, and uses every opportunity to show others that she is smarter than they are. She is also perpetually changing her mind. Marnie is Hannah's best friend, a perfectionist who seems self-assured but is just as insecure. Jessa spends the entire series telling everyone what they should be doing with their lives while she is the epitome of insecurity and the first to run away from unhappiness. Shoshanna starts out as an innocent in the games that the three other women play with each other and possibly ends up being the most centred and focused of them all by the end.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed the series as much as I wanted to know how it ends (it's the sadist in me). The humour is questionable, depending all too much on stereotypical representations and situations and lewdness to drive the comedy. The tone was also off for me: when an episode attempted to be lighthearted, it was overridden by the selfishness of the characters and the mysterious feeling that a parody of a situation was being made to look serious.

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I like the way the series touched on sensitive issues in ways that either revealed both sides of the argument or opened up raw wounds on sensitive subjects, such as alcoholism, consent, race relations, mental illness, and abortion. This is one of the main reasons the show isn't too popular among viewers: it aims to trigger, on everything. But what is popular culture for if not to make us question the status quo, the current politics of the world, bigotry and prejudice, and political issues that often simply simmer below the surface?

One of my biggest complaints is the tired characterisation of the girls and many of the characters around them. Perhaps it is because something similar was done with Sex and the City, making Girls appear to attempt to be the voice of its generation. The character arcs are so slow: throughout the six years, Shoshanna is the only woman who becomes successful and confident, and the only one to recognise the toxic relationships her friends represent. Hannah's growth spurt only happens near the end of the series finale, where it seems all she needed to do was see a self-entitled teenager act like she did to realise she has been immature for all six seasons. While Marnie had the greatest potential for growth, she began and ended the story in her codependent relationship with Hannah, and only realises in the last five minutes that she needs to find herself. The only way I see Jessa having any growth was maybe not running away from Adam when he proposed to help Hannah raise her child.

If you think about it, we may think the show is about these women but it really is about relationships, their quality, and also how important communication - both conveying and accepting it - is in maintaining them. All the relationships break down because of the fear that honesty will cause them to collapse. Everyone on the outside of these relationships is happy to point out the girls' flaws and be honest with them in the hopes that they will improve. We are made to believe these people - Ray, Adam, Elijah, Hannah's parents - are being unfairly judgmental, but they have an honesty the girls' relationships lack. The women turn a blind eye to their own flaws and instead focus on each others' weaknesses.

HBO-Girls-Adam-ShoshannaI really struggled to like Marnie, Hannah, or Jessa: they were all pull-my-hair-out annoying and I honestly can't see myself being friends with any of them. The amount of time they spend talking to each other about their own feelings is only eclipsed by the amount of times no one is actually listening to what is being said. Shoshanna is really an outcast in the group, serving as a soundboard for all the other girls' feelings towards one another. The saving grace is, however, how well the characters are performed. Regardless of whether I like them or not, I think the point is that the viewers are supposed to be made uncomfortable; we are not supposed to like these women because they are real and they reflect our own flaws as we watch the show.

Throughout the series, we are forced to take a hard look at how women are judged and judge each other, often unfairly, often harshly, and often behind each others' backs. I recently overheard a man say a male colleague had to rein in his indulgence in 'female' gossip, and while this may be a stereotype it is one I've seen played out in office and social situations myself. In fact, it is interesting that I disliked the characters and it possibly reveals my own psychology as a woman doing battle with other women, since we are practically bred to be compete with each other for men, happiness, success, even motherhood. This also seems to be a favourite theme for Dunham, since her next venture into television, Camping, is also about 'woman on woman' crime. This 'mean girls' psychology often sees women separate themselves into social groups, themselves arranged in a hierarchy, and in order to 'fit into' the group, it is necessary to change who you are or be a pariah. It is part of our innate psychology as humans to need to belong and be accepted. Throughout the series the four friends in Girls seem to be breaking away from the social group they created but do so by systematically alienating themselves and each other from every member of the group. The dysfunctional manner in which these women leave their relationships is quite true to reality, because growing up and letting go is never cut and dry.


I cried during the episode in the final season where Hannah rejects Adam's help to raise her baby. It was spot on in reflecting that strange feeling you have when you realise you simply have to let go of the past and move on, much like the entire season. While Adam and Hannah resonated on a sexual and intellectual level, and the potential for happiness was always there, I think the pair realised they had both grown beyond each other, that it wouldn't be enough in the long run. It was heartbreaking. And that's how the end to a relationship always is. I take this episode to have been the true farewell to the series, because Girls realised it was time to say goodbye.

While I thought Hannah's growth being spurred by motherhood a tired idea, it made sense, as the overall point is not that Hannah, and by implication all her friends, have grown but that they are still growing, like her baby in her arms. The entire series looked at how these women grew apart and attempted to deal with their identity issues, failing dismally, even after six years. But the truth is that many people never know what it is that will make them happy. The final season is possibly the best overall, because we get to see the women without the negative influence they have on each other. The series did not end in a particularly memorable way, but it does end with the feeling that personal growth and success is not something you can ever put a finger on, and sometimes all it takes for you to be happy for the time being is to latch on to something worthwhile.

Have you watched Girls? I would love to know what you thought of it!

{Images: Facebook/GirlsHBO}
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