Saturday, December 14, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick applauds two exceptional artists: Michael Leunig and Tina Fiveash

Michael Leunig is surely one of Australia's most influential artists. He reminds us repeatedly of our collective and individual vulnerabilities, defences, needs and neediness. He also reminds us of what personal and social healing we are "not looking", not seeing, not acknowledging. This is not less powerful because he does it in such a quietly subversive way, sometimes making us laugh, sometimes just wryly acknowledging the truth of what he draws and paints. 

Leunig's apparently naive painting, cartooning, sculpture and drawing style suits his "message" or purpose exceptionally well. He speaks to us (the adults we are presumed to be but seldom are) as a child might: with all the innocence and clear-seeing of a child unafraid to say that the Emperor truly has no clothes.
Leunig also speaks to us through that timeless archetype of holy, bold - courageous - innocence: the "holy fool". I love it that he has chosen Holy Fool as the title of his new book. It's a lavish production (my photos barely do justice) showcasing more than 240 Leunig artworks. Much more than a coffee table book, it offers testimony to what matters most: whether or not we can "afford" to bring gentle, delighted appreciation to this life we share...or whether we can possibly afford not to.
For so many years "content" has had an uneasy place in art; even discussing it has become absurdly difficult. Leunig places content where it belongs: in that most intimate, potent and rich relationship between artist and viewer. Through his work, this artist freely speaks. And we listen.
The visual arts have been a passion of mine throughout my adult lifetime. At The Women's Press in London - where I was Managing Director from 1978-1983 - we were literally the first in the world to bring to public attention in a sustained way through a number of books and all the discussion that flowed from them how shamefully women artists had been neglected in the "art world" - and how much there was to be reclaimed not historically only but also in how we see and understand women artists' work.

In the decades since, gender equity in the arts has improved a great deal. Nonetheless, many immensely talented innovative, expressive artists - women and men - still struggle to find an audience and anything remotely like a living wage for their highly accomplished work. Our response to that needs to be active - and intelligently protective. Where we can, we should use whatever funds we have to buy what is original, handmade, meaningful. Many people find it easy to buy the latest "triumph" from Apple; far less easy to spend the same money or less on an artwork that will never have a use-by date or need an upgrade. In supporting art, we support a world that values art and those who make it.

"Twin Spirit" by Tina Fiveash. (Please do NOT use this on the web or in any other way without her permission.)
I don't know whether the work of artist Tina Fiveash is yet fully appreciated, but until her work is in all our major galleries and collections I would say it isn't appreciated enough! I caught up with her - and discovered her work - when I was invited to open a most exceptional exhibition called Sacred, held in Canberra recently. Curated by Benita Tunks, all the work was of the highest standard. Tina's work is particularly accessible - which takes nothing from its intelligence and depth. You can hear here a recording (up now on YouTube) of my brief, deeply felt comments about her work at that most affecting exhibition.

Discovering a new artist is such a joy! You can visit Tina's website; follow her "Bell Tower" project; or contact her about buying her work. What a glorious gift that would be for yourself or for someone you most tenderly love.

Artist Tina Fiveash

Dr Stephanie Dowrick co-hosts the Universal Heart Book Club and is the author of many books, including Seeking the Sacred and In the Company of Rilke. She has a life-long interest in the expressive and visual as well as the writing arts, and in the "sacred."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Walter Mason recommends his most inspiring books of the year

Walter writes: Books are always the perfect gift. Every year I decide on a particular title as my "Christmas book" and give away multiple copies. I am not going to let on what that title is for this year, for obvious reasons. But instead I want to list a few of the books that got me most inspired this year. I guarantee that any of these titles will change your life if you read them. So here they are, in no particular order. (Post-free details for ordering follow!)

Do the Work by Steven Pressfield - A tiny book that is filled with inspiration. Pressfield is the legendary author of The War of Art, and this little book is a kind of distillation of his philosophy for creative people: just do the work, and stop giving yourself excuses. Exactly the kind of kick up the pants we sometimes need.

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson - The delightful, quirky and unstoppably curious Jon Ronson is one of my favourite writers, and this collection of his essays and journalism is so odd that it stands out as some of the most fascinating reading of this, or any other, year. If you haven't discovered Ronson yet, this book is the perfect introduction.

Queen Lucia by E F Benson - Please indulge me. I know it's a bit cheeky to recommend an Edwardian comic novel on a list of "must reads" but I pick this book up every year (read my essay on Benson and why he is a genius here) and this year it delighted me so, so much that I  thought I might never have to read another novel again. He reminds me why I want to be a writer.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin - This is the one I recommend in all my classes and workshops. Godin is a received genius, and this book really turns the attention to the very real creativity of everyday lives. Godin says that it's all about "making art." Do what you want to do, what you need to do. Whatever it is, the important thing is that you do it, not talk about it. A brilliant read.

Mary-Lou Stephens
Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens - Perfection. I stumbled upon this book quite by accident and then, by some kind of psychic miracle, was put in contact with the author. Mary-Lou's account of fame, drug addiction and recovery through meditation is one of the best memoirs I have read in years. Humble, witty and so very, very true. All I wanted was for this book never to end.

The Secret of Life Wellness by Inna Segal - A reviewer described me this year as "a man in poor health," an assumption made from reading my new book, Destination Cambodia. This shocked me rather, as I see myself as someone in rude good health. But then I picked up Inna Segal's fascinating new book and realised that I needed to take my health, and my body, much more seriously. If 2014 is your year of getting fit, this book makes the perfect theoretical start. So fascinating. It really is about how to bring your soul into alignment with your body.

Heaven on Earth by my Universal Heart Bookclub co-host Stephanie Dowrick - Do you want to bring more reflection, more quiet and more prayer into your life? Stephanie's new book is an excellent place to start. I have picked this book up every day since I received it and it will serve anybody as a continual aid to, and inspiration for, prayer. I especially appreciate the excellent practical sections on how to cultivate a prayer life and just why we should be praying more. An inspired and inspiring book. You can view my recent interview with Stephanie about this book via this LINK. (SD: And you can view my interview with Walter about his wonderful Destination Cambodia at this LINK! I am definitely putting Walter's book in several lucky people's Christmas stockings.)

POST-FREE Book BUYING? You can buy any of these books - or any others - and also support the Universal Heart Bookclub via THIS LINK. It takes you first to Stephanie's books and you can then type in any title (or author's name) you are seeking. We also welcome your comments!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Walter Mason reads Sister Jayanti's God's Healing Power

Walter Mason writes: Strengthening awareness. Using my senses positively. Finding out who I really am. These are all themes and ideas which have stayed with me after reading and working with Sister Jayanti’s gentle, inspiring and quite practical meditation manual, God’s Healing Power.

Sister Jayanti is a senior teacher in the Brahma Kumaris spiritual tradition, and I recently had the pleasure of hearing her speak and, along with a thousand or so others, meditating with her. That talk had a profound impact on me, and you can read more about it here.

Sister Jayanti teaching in Sydney
Before leaving that talk I bought a copy of God’s Healing Power, having heard it so warmly endorsed by interfaith minister and writer Stephanie Dowrick in her introduction to Sister Jayanti that night. I even braved the crowd and lined up to have it signed, and Sister, in the Brahma Kumaris fashion, looked me straight in the eye, and I experienced the most incredible feeling of love and connection.

Happily, reading this book has afforded me that same feeling of connection and even, occasionally, excitement. It is meditation book that will appeal to even the most restless soul. We are all inclined to moments of meditation, Sister Jayanti reminds us: “Consciously or not, we all experience meditative states from time to time.” In a culture obsessed with acquisition and the meeting of material needs, this book reminds us to nourish or souls, just as we nourish our bodies with food. And for soul nourishment, meditation is the very best food.

What I love about Sister Jayanti’s approach is her lightness of touch, and her recognition of different temperaments and different needs along the spiritual journey. Many people respond negatively when faced with the idea of meditation (hours sitting on the floor? Not for me!), and many more seethe when faced with the G word used in this book’s title. Even for these people, there are ways in to meditative awareness that would suit their particular state of mind. Nature is an example she uses. Being in nature and becoming conscious of its beauty is an excellent way of discovering the possibilities of meditative awareness. I love this idea because I think it is one our Victorian forebears, with their great lover of flowers and scenes and the idea of the sublime, intuitively grasped. My own grandfather, a lifelong atheist, often makes the claim that the bush is his church.

Sister Jayanti teaches the method of Raja Yoga, which she says is about “becoming self-sovereign, master of the mind and senses. It teaches that there is a natural royalty in us...” The whole point of meditation, she says, is to become aware of the spiritual truth of ourselves, and that once we begin tapping into this spiritual truth we realise the incredible degree of connectedness between ourselves and all the other elements of the universe. Gently reminding us all that there is a kind of supreme truth at the heart of us, Sister Jayanti’s approach occasionally reminds me of that other great master, Thich Nhat Hanh, especially in his work on interbeing and interconnectedness.

The value of regular time spent alone is made clear when Sister Jayanti writes: “When I become introspective, see myself as a being of light, become aware of the Supreme Light, and allow myself to become absorbed in that light, truth returns to my own being.” It is a truth that also illuminates this book’s pages, making me aware of the wondrousness of my own source. This growing awareness will also be reflected in our body, health and wellbeing, Sister Jayanti reminds us.

This book could easily be used as a meditation guide over a period of months – that is how I plan to work with it. It is divided into four sections: The Soul; God; Relationships; and The Destination. Reading Sister Jayanti’s divinely sourced wisdom I am helped to remember the importance of listening, really listening, to the wisdom of this universe. And what is meditation, if it is not deeply listening, listening to our bodies our feelings and thoughts and, just possibly, that spark beyond it all which we have no good name for? We have in our spiritual makeup a capacity for deep, divine listening, and ultimately I am reminded of the exquisite call through the Psalms (Psalm 46) to “Be still and know that I am God.”
You can purchase this beautiful book, and many deeply serene meditation commentaries by B.K. Jayanti, from Eternity Ink.
You can purchase, post free, Walter Mason's new book, Destination Cambodia, via this link.

Stephanie Dowrick unwraps some fiction for Christmas


Stephanie Dowrick writes: I adore reading intelligent, absorbing fiction at any time of the year. But there is something about the Christmas period and the days that follow that are particularly inviting of that glorious pleasure of losing oneself in a world created by a talented (and hardworking) writer. The hard work of course never shows, when it's done well. And by that I mean, when the writer successfully draws you into the very heart of the world she or he has imaginatively created - and you enter as a willing visitor into their spell-binding reality.

On the recent writing retreat I led in Japan I took with me for evening reading British writer Sarah Dunant's novel Sacred Hearts. Set in 16th-century Italy, and largely in the confined space of a single (though fairly vast) convent, it is an exceptional portrait of the lives of highly intelligent, ambitious, talented women whose choices in life may appear exceptionally constrained, by contemporary standards. And yet - and Dunant's story-telling skills are exceptionally skillful in conveying this - we also see how and why convent life also offered some extraordinary opportunities for independence and safety at a time when marriage and childbirth frequently cost women their freedom, health and even their lives. You can find a longer review at this link. But if you are interested in women's history, religion and religious cultures, Italy, the Renaissance and music and healing...what a wonderful range of topics!...then know that here they unfold through story-telling that is memorable and deeply satisfying.
Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert will go through life associated with her massive best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Clearly, though, she takes fiction immensely serious and her long debut novel, The Signature of All Things, is immensely ambitious as well as utterly engaging. It, too, is an historical novel and also reflects intensely on women's lives and opportunities. It opens with a new century: 1800, and moves not only through the interior lives of its characters but also "travels" externally: from England to Australia, USA, Tahiti, the Netherlands. Gilbert has reflected publicly on how much she relished doing the research the novel (and her ambitions for it) required. This doesn't sit heavily; it adds greatly to the reader's pleasure. An interview with this immensely accomplished writer can be accessed via this link.

Sanjida O'Connell is a writer new to me, but I picked up The Naked Name of Love in part because it is about a journey across the intensely demanding lands of Mongolia, taken in 1865 - as Darwinian theories are beginning to challenge widely-held assumptions and beliefs - by a Buddhist monk, a courageous, selfless local horseman and guide, and an English Jesuit botanist in search of rare plant specimens and especially a breathtakingly beautiful white lily. It was only when I began to read this quite wonderfully engaging novel that I discovered its author had in part based it on the life and passions of Teilhard de Chardin whom I have always deeply admired. I don't believe she intends us to take this too literally; in fact, she does not. But questions of faith, science, commitment, loyalty, and the differences between people culturally and religiously as well as what binds them, are most intriguingly and intelligently drawn out here. At the heart of the novel, too, is an entirely plausible love affair; the reader cannot help but feel for and with the heart-wrenching decisions that face Joseph, the priest, and Namuunaa, an heroic, extraordinarily competent young woman, perhaps a shaman. The dangers of monastic life are extreme in different ways for the Buddhist monks. Life is so tough in this time and place, yet many of the relationships appear to be remarkably tender and loyal, and are most tenderly drawn. It's a story of real strength and beauty. Many readers will additionally love the excitement of the botanical finds and the intense relationships between animals and humans.

I didn't set out to recommend historical novels exclusively for this holiday season and beyond, but the last of this very special group of novels is also set in the past, and also conjures that past with bewitching sensuality and sensitivity for the lives of the people she is evoking. Claire Scobie, author of The Pagoda Tree, is an English-Australian writer who is vastly experienced as a journalist and as a travel writer. This is her first novel but like Elizabeth Gilbert she brings to this new venture a deep intelligence and writing confidence. The time is late 18th-century; the place is Tanjore, India; the characters are, variously, the colonizing English and the devadasi, the women who are - at least somewhat - doubly colonized: by the power of the British and also by the expectations of their caste, destiny and religion. The power and place of dance in Hindu ritual is central here, most skilfully revealing what it means to the women themselves to "carry" the dance and all that it well as the ways in which even their exquisite talents and dedication cannot save them from forces outside themselves. Courage is vivid here, in the characters and in the writing. I can imagine many of you giving or receiving this beautiful novel and doing so with confidence and joy.  
Want to purchase these books postage free? (You can follow the individual link to purchase any other books also - and a small, welcome % returns to us to support these pages. Thank you!) Just click on the titles that follow:
Sacred Hearts
The Signature of All Things
The Naked Name of Love
The Pagoda Tree

Dr Stephanie Dowrick's latest book is Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love, a book not only of sublime prayers, but also a highly accessible guide on how to pray.  In 2014 Stephanie Dowrick will be teaching the WRITERS' WORKSHOP for the Faber Academy in Sydney.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Understanding Shiva

Walter Mason writes: "Reading Claire Scobie’s exquisite new novel The Pagoda Tree has sent me back to a range of books to help me hone up my knowledge of Hinduism, particularly the worship of Shiva, which is a large part of Claire’s simply fascinating book."
Purchasing details follow.

The Pagoda Tree tells the story of the Devadasi, temple dancers consecrated to Shiva and devoted to a life of ritual dance and worship, serving as wives of the deity. At a young age these women were tattooed with the trident symbol of Shiva, and they danced in ancient recreations of the various lives and stories of this most important deity. Much of Claire’s book is set in the large Shiva temple at Tanjore, a real place devoted to the worship of the Shiva Lingam, the phallic rendering of a particular aspect of Shiva.

The first book I picked up in my quest for knowledge  was Namita Gokhale’s simply brilliant The Book of Shiva, an excellent introduction to the stories and mythology attached to Shiva, and the various ways in which he is worshipped.

Reading it I was reminded that Shiva is the father of Ganesha, the hugely popular elephant-headed deity who, as remover of obstacles, serves as a focal point for the worship of so many people. Ganesha has played an important symbolic purpose in my life, and I have written about him in both my books. A small shrine to Ganesha was in the corner of my room in Phnom Penh when I wrote Destination Cambodia, and there is a small and beautifully-kept park in that same city that hosts a little-visited statue of Ganesha of great modernist beauty.

Gokhale’s lovely and very informative little book also told the story of Shiva’s great sacrifice in drinking the poison of the world – he was the only celestial to have done so. This is why he is traditionally depicted with a blue throat – the skin changed colour in reaction to the poison he consumed out of a sense of duty.

The next book I went to was Daughters of the Goddess author Linda Johnsen’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism. Say what you like about the title, this is for me one of the most indispensible religious guides I have ever purchased, and I must pick it up a dozen times a year. Clearly and carefully laid out, I think it the very best introduction to Hinduism for the lay person, and it is an invaluable reference book. She talks about the images of Shiva Nataraja, the exquisite form of Shiva dancing in a circle of flame. This is an image I have in my own home (and which, incidentally, I have glimpsed in the study of Claire Scobie herself).  A Southern Indian image, Johnsen says it represents “the end of the present cycle of time when Shiva will annihilate the universe, reabsorbing all existence into his pure awareness.”

Shiva Nataraja
Shiva’s vehicle is the bull Nandi, as Ajit Mookerjee reminds us in his exquisitely illustrated book Kali: The Feminine Force. This figure of Nandi is something the traveller will regularly encounter in Bali, and in the outer courtyards of the temples at Angkor in Cambodia. It was Nandi who defeated the god Indra’s elephant mount, reminds Paul B. Courtright in his exhaustive and constantly fascinating book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. The head of this elephant became the head of Ganesha, Shiva’s own son.

Shiva represents so many contradictory forces and is the perfect symbol of the inexplicable Godhead. As Ram Dass explains in his fantastic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Paths to God, Shiva is the final thing that Arjuna faces in his tremendous spiritual battle. For in Shiva’s form all is destroyed, all lives, and all is created.

Keen to read or listen?
You can purchase Claire Scobie's The Pagoda Tree postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Ram Dass' Paths to God postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Namita Gokhale's The Book of Shiva postage FREE from this link: BUY
(You can buy any other books you are seeking also by continuing on "via" those links. A small % of the sale will return to us and support this Book Club. Thank you for that.) 
You can also hear Stephanie Dowrick read a most exquisite passage from the Bhagavad Gita on her magnificent new meditation/sacred music CD, Heavenly, co-created with musician Kim Cunio. Heavenly is available by mail order from BLUE.