Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Fall of Skywalker?

It is with some trepidation that I take my family to see the final installment in the Star Wars saga that has been running since the year I was born. A New Hope, just Star Wars back then, was the first movie I was taken to as a child. No doubt I didn’t remember much, being only two or three years old.

I didn’t even get to watch the second and third installments of the franchise growing up as my parents had joined a religion which didn’t allow exposure to much in the way of mainstream culture. Other kids at school were playing with Wookies and pretending to be Han Solo when I was in primary school, but I had no idea what they were talking about.

It wasn’t until university that I got to sit down and watch the whole original trilogy. Star Wars taught me that life is messy, that even an orphan moisture farmer can find himself at the centre of a broader story, and make a difference. It taught me respect for magic, that heroes aren’t always all good and the villains aren’t just bad.

Another important lesson was not to get too attached to the first pretty girl you meet, she might turn out to be your sister (*spoiler*).

I wish I had been exposed to these truths growing up. I think it would have saved me from learning them in more difficult ways.

Star Wars was also the catalyst which allowed me to embrace my weirdness. It let me know that I wasn’t the only person on the planet interested in inter-stellar travel, mystic powers and aliens. It drew my attention off the mundane lives people lead on this irrelevant speck of dust, and revealed a canvas spanning millions of years and trillions of stars. So much of what interests me as a human being is tied up in the world of Star Wars.

I even attribute my taking up of the meditative spiritual path of Falun Gong twenty years ago in part to the themes in Star Wars. Similarly, it helped me break free of the restrictive and lifeless religion of my upbringing. The words of Yoda aren’t just fiction, pick up a classical Taoist or Buddhist text and find them you will.

The final movie in this series represents a double death for me. Firstly in the closure of the story, but also in the swallowing of the franchise by Disney. While George Lucas presented the brutal truth of existence, for many years Disney has glossed over it. I know there are exceptions, but in the main Disney prefers heroes and villains who stay in their lanes. Good triumphs at the end of the story arc and the struggle along the way is rarely ethically taxing. This isn’t real, life doesn’t work this way and it worries me when generations of children are raised on the thin sugary gruel of Disney.

So far George Lucas seems to have kept his hand on the tiller and the three most recent films have revived some of the Star Wars magic. To be honest, I really enjoyed the three prequel films as well. What hope for the future though?

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

Dan Brown – Origin – A Guided Tour

I have been a big fan of Dan Brown’s books, all the way back to Digital Fortress and Deception Point. Origin, the latest book in the Robert Langdon series, is no exception. Even though the books follow a fairly predictable structure, i.e. “middle aged professor saves the world from a shadowy foe with attractive young woman against backdrop of old buildings and paintings”, I still enjoy them.

What I enjoy most is the way that a crucial real-world question of philosophy, science or religion is woven into what appears on the surface to be a low-reader-investment thriller. With this approach, I think Dan Brown has managed to reach an audience which would otherwise never pick up a book on the ethics of genetic engineering, comparative religious studies, ancient architecture or synthetic intelligence.

I won’t go into the plot here, you should go and read the book yourself. What I did find, was that I was stopping every 10 pages to look up a painting, building or religious cult on the internet. In order to save you some time, I have created a list of links to some of the key elements of the book. Some of them I had heard of before, others were entirely new to me. There are no real spoilers in the list, hopefully it will save you some googling.

One day I hope to make it to Spain to do an Origin tour, as I was able to do in Rome and Washington D.C. focused on the content of Angels & Demons and The Lost Symbol. Let me know what you thought of the book, and if you think I have missed anything.

(this post has no association with Dan Brown or Penguin/Bantam, links are all to external sites)

Works of Art

Yves Klein

Leap into the Void:

Monotone Silence (nudity):

Luis Boureois


Richard Serra

The Matter of Time:

Joan Miro

Signs and Meteors (not specifically mentioned, but Joan is referenced):

Pablo Picasso

El Guernica:

Antoni Gaudi

Parc Guell:

La Sopa Primordial:

Paul Gauguin

Where do we come from what are we doing where are we going?:

William Blake

Vala or the Four Zoas:,_or_The_Four_Zoas

The Ancient of Days:



Library –

Guggenheim – Bilbao

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

360 internal:

Local photos, plus weeping willow sculpture:

Catedral de la Almundena

Royal Palace of Madrid

Palacio de la Zarzuela

Szechenyi Chain Bridge

Basilica of Palmar De Troya

(visit by former nun)

Casa Mila (by Gaudi)

video mentioned in book:

La Basilica De La Sagrada Familia

Must be seen to be believed:

Plan for completion by 2026:

El Escorial

Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen)

Organisations or People

Palmarian Catholic Church:

(totally real)

Spanish Royal Guard

Random Information

What is a Whiffenpoof?

Symbols of Franco

D-Wave (Quantum Computer)

Miller-Urey Experiment

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

Star Wars: The Last Misogynist

I have been watching the outrage and disappointment being voiced on social media and blogs regarding the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise and want to respond. As our family are long-time fans, since I first saw A New Hope way back in 1977, we all went to see the latest film, The Last Jedi, last week.

Warning: Spoilers there will be.

For me, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it wasn’t too long, the cinematics were beautiful and it was so great to see Mark Hamill back on the screen with an actual speaking part, it was also bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen for the last time. Our 8, 6 and 3 year old boys all made it through the whole film and stayed engaged. My 14 year old twins weren’t as impressed, but I put that down to hormones.

So why so much hate? This Vox article by Todd VanDerWerff provides an excellent summary and even references this petition for those hoping to remove Last Jedi from the Star Wars canon.  This Vanity Fair article by Joanna Robinson points to the notable disparity between the critic score, 93%, and the viewer score, 56%. Joanna also summarises what Todd says less clearly, that this negative viewer score is the result of ‘Make America Great Again’ white male misogynists who are angry at the films content.

In the context of the #MeToo phenomena and the spectacular recent fall from power of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Don Bourke (Australian TV), Matt Lauer (see the full list here) it feels like society is experiencing the re-awakening of female power. I can see how generations of men who have gotten away with, and even expected, their right to be in charge and treat women however they feel without consequence, might be feeling a little vulnerable.

The Last Jedi was full of recognition of the capabilities of women. From Rey as heroine, to both Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo as leaders and the addition of Rose Tico (a mechanic, Firefly anyone?). So many stereotypes toppled and paradigms shifted. I can see why this would make many men still living in a chauvinist bubble very uncomfortable.

Some specific elements include Leia and Holdo in their disapproval of young hotshot, Poe’s, aggressive approach to everything. The idea that rationality and wisdom, in the minds of women, is better at winning the day than macho action is repeated several times in the film. It is also shown that despite this tendency for rationality, women are equally capable of taking violent decisive action when the situation requires it.

In the scenes with Rose and Finn, it is Finn that is taking the path of a coward and Rose who surges ahead with confidence, integrity and dedication.

Luke has been sulking for many years over a mistake (a stereotypical male response) and it is Rey who draws him out and back into the fight. Without giving too much away about the final scenes, Luke’s means of defeating the enemy is the ultimate in passivity. Take this a little deeper and realise that throughout Luke’s island tantrum, Leia continued to fight the remnants of the Empire and the rise of the First Order.

I think that what Director, Rian Johnson, has done with Last Jedi is a beautiful addition to the Star Wars cannon, and is an excellent reading of the 2017 zeitgeist.

Slightly off the topic of rectifying the balance in the gender relations, Rian also slips in a bit of timely exposure for arms dealers. In my song Charlottesville, I tried to capture the reality that often in any fight between two parties, there is a third party profiting at no risk to themselves. I wonder who that third party is in the current gender war?

Star Wars related, but off the topic of the film, one of my 12 songs for Christmas this year has a Star Wars theme.

I can’t predict where #metoo is headed, if the views of these bizarre feminists, is anything to go by then nowhere, but I am hopeful, that it is the spark of resistance, that it will lead to balance and mutual respect. Long live the Rebel Alliance!

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

An open letter to Joan Baez

Dear Ms Baez,

I will start by confessing that in my love for the folk era of the 1960’s I have failed to pay attention to your work, not just as a singer, but as a human being who endeavors to use your skills and resources to make the world a better place.

In my focus on the earnest political (topical) songs of Phil Ochs, the obscure lyricism/mysticism of Leonard Cohen, the brain-splitting poetic scalpel of Bob Dylan, sage wisdom of Pete Seeger and the whimsy of Joni Mitchell, I foolishly passed over you as a beautiful voice alone.

I have been reading your autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, and while I am only a third of the way through the book, I feel that I can’t hold off on writing this letter.

It is one thing to sing about the problems of the world, but an entirely different thing to put your hand to the wheel and endeavour to generate change. Not just the political style change of ideals and promises, or even the important, but inherently limited, work of treating local symptoms, but the work of seeking to change the psyche that creates inequality and suffering.

Having a tangible hand in the abolition of segregation in the American South and bringing an end to a pointless war in Vietnam are no small achievements.

When I read about your establishment of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in 1964, now the Resource Centre for Nonviolence, I see the inspiration and foundation for the way in which the resistance against the violent and pervasive suppression of Falun Gong in China has been conducted.

I am sure that, given your status, you receive many appeals for assistance related to any number of human rights atrocities occurring around the world. Here in Australia we have our very own self-generated crisis in the treatment of refugees on Manus Island and a little further away the terrible abuse of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Hopefully you will indulge my efforts to bring this particular situation to your attention, if it has not already been.

I have personally being involved in the effort to work peacefully towards an end to the persecution of Falun Gong since I started the practice myself in 1998, before it was banned in China. The consistent commitment to non-violence in the protest has been adhered to world-wide for 18 years now. This is despite some documented cases of external attempts at infiltration to instigate violence and even violence staged by the Chinese Communist Party.

As a singer/songwriter myself, I started writing songs to try and raise awareness about this issue back in 2003 and finally published them in 2011. Quite a few other people who practice Falun Gong have tried to do the same thing with their music, including The Good Seeds and on a more professional level with Shen Yun performing arts.

I greatly enjoyed your tribute to Donald Trump, it is so inspiring that you have been making a stand in word and deed since all the way back in 1958 when you refused the contrived nuclear fear propaganda. I am so delighted that I picked up your autobiography at the local Book Fair last month, which was, incidentally, raising money for Refugees.

Sincere thanks for your time, and your continuing contribution to our world,

Daniel Kelly

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Folk Music

The Auld Triangle

This post is a book review of Confessions of an Irish Rebel, an autobiography of Brendan Behan. Brendan is best known for his play The Quare Fellow, based on the time he spent in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

In Confessions Brendan specifically refers to the prisoner that inspired the play, a man sentenced to death for homosexuality.  Brendan was serving a 14 year sentence for attempting to shoot a policeman. He was released after serving 4 years under a general amnesty for Irish Republican Army IRA prisoners.

I first heard about the connection between the song The Auld Triangle and Brendan Behan when I sang it at a small singing session here in Australia. I had assumed that the song was about a prisoner in the 1700s and mumbled something to that effect before singing it. There happened to be an Irish gentlemen in the audience who explained to me that I should probably know something about a song before singing it. Fair call.

I am writing this some ten years on, and while I did do some initial research back then, it was only reading Brendan’s book that really brought the song and its subject into focus for me.

There are some fantastic versions of this song, Luke Kelly and the Dubliner’s version being my favourite. Some other notable versions include the Doug Anthony All Stars here, and Brendan singing himself here. My own attempt here. Brendan did not write the song but attributes it to Dicky Shannon, who he mentions in the video of him singing.

You can still get a copy of Confessions on Amazon. I was fortunate enough to pick my copy up for $1 at a local charity book fair last week. The book had to be dictated, as by 1964, Brendan’s fondness for alcohol made it difficult to write or type himself. The book was published in 1965, after Brendan’s death at just 41.

The debilitating nature of Brendan’s relationship with alcohol comes across strongly in the text. Whether in Dublin, Cannes or London, there is always a stop for a pint or glass of something, even on the way to prison. This aspect of the book had me wondering whether part of the subjugation of the Irish people by the English was achieved with provision of access to cheap alcohol, just as it was achieved with the original populations of Australian, America and other colonies.

When Brendan is taken on a pub crawl by his grandmother and a Mrs Murphy, on her way to a retirement hospice, it becomes clear that the taste for a drink was not a new pastime in Dublin.

I am surprised that this book was published in the 1960s at all, with its frank discussion of homosexuality, IRA operations, prostitution, swearing and blasphemy. As the book doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, I’m not sure whether it was banned (I did find a reference to it being banned in South Africa).

I don’t think Brendan was writing for fame or notoriety, I think this quote from an Amazon review on Borstal Boy sums it up well:

Brendan Behan may have been dead these 50 years but this book is like sitting next to him on a barstool telling this slice of his life story. As a teenager, Behan was arrested for his IRA activities and spent some time in custody at various English correctional facilities. He makes friends, he deals with prejudice, he deals with stupid rules. Really nothing happens in this book and yet it was entertaining. Wicked sense of humor and wonderful sense of the man both come through in this story of a young Republican serving his time. ARG – Amazon Reviews

I greatly enjoyed Brendan’s insertion of Gaelic throughout the text, I didn’t realise that The Quare Fellow had originally been called Casadh an tSúgáin eile, which means twisting the rope again, or twisting another rope, making reference to the hanging rope, but also the traditional song Casadh an tSúgáin (and in English). Brendan made good use of his time in prison to learn Gaelic.

The other enjoyable aspect of the book was spotting the names that so frequently come up in Irish song, probably mundane to those that live in Ireland, but of great interest to me.

It is timely that I am writing this on the day that Australian’s voted to endorse gay marriage. Of course we still have a conservative government in power and a conservative lobby engine that plans to do everything it can to avoid changing the law, despite a 61% yes vote and 79.5% participation.

This hypocrisy really irks me, all through the campaign the idea of marriage as a human right was dismissed by the religious conservatives, but now suddenly their right to be a bigot is a human right. I published my own, probably controversial, views here, but now that the people have spoken, the government should get on with making their will law as soon as possible.

Around the time that Brendan Behan was in Mountjoy and Borstal, 35 people were executed for homosexuality (between 1923 and 1954).

I highly recommend reading Confessions of an Irish Rebel, by no means high literature, but a raw and fascinating view into the events that shaped Brendan’s work.


For Brendan

Another drink, another glass friends,

Another song to the heros here and gone,

Let me sing the streets of Dublin, the cells of Borstal,

Drown them both in a fine dram.


Aughrim was lost, but Ireland fights on,

Fights with gun, and with a voice in song,

Devil take you haughty folks of pretence,

Give me a good solid girl and a bottle.


Though I am long from this world,

I lived full, and drew hard on the lit toitín of life,

Whether painting a lighthouse or a church,

I found the joy where it was to be found.

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

nolite te bastardes carborundorum

I wish I had read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was twelve or thirteen, it would have made the underlying relationship structures between men and women much less confusing. It is as though men have built and fueled the engines of female subjugation but then found a way to pretend that they have always been there and were never the fault of men.

I was compelled to read this incredible book, by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985, after watching the TV series of the same name. Thankfully, one of our independent media channels, SBS, made the whole series available to stream. I am grateful to live in a country where we still have media that is happy to air contentious views that challenge the establishment. With a sustained attack on our government broadcaster, the ABC, by a right-leaning government, it is a freedom we may soon have significantly less of.

It is always a pleasant surprise when you read a book related to TV series that you have already watched and find that the creation is a faithful representation of the written text. With Margaret having a cameo in the series, it is probably fair to say that she had some influence on the screenplay and cinematography.

I won’t spoil the plot, but the subject matter is a stark and confronting look at the way in which society de-values women as people, and over-values their role as baby incubators. Written largely in the first person, for me the book was a chance to view various forms of male/female and female/female interactions in a different light. While the dystopian setting might alter the context, the interactions described almost all exist now, in our current society.

The experience made me angry, because I could see how by the time I was seventeen I had been completely indoctrinated into a male world of assumed privilege. Girls were all princesses, ready to swoon at my feats of strength and beg to bear my children. Utter-rubbish, that left me with many years of recovery and many needless hurtful actions until I arrived at a place of some balance.

There are no happy endings in the book, no one is winning. Like in any violent takeover of a society, China’s Cultural Revolution, the French Revolution, Lenin, it is the ones at the top who are often in the most precarious of positions. When you build the machines for un-checked state violence against the people, they can always be turned on you.

While religious fanaticism plays a part, Margaret herself points out in the new forward to the 2017 release, that it is power and it’s pursuit which is to blame, rather than a specific type of religious fervency. The Communist Atheists murdered their teachers just as gleefully as the Christian Europeans burned their witches.

My main takeaway from this book was to look very carefully at the mental structures that underlie the relationships between the sexes, both domestic and intimate. It is not enough to be aware of your own foibles and fears, but that we should be sensitive to the lens that is distorting the other person’s view of the world.

I don’t want to pick apart the plot further in this post. I thoroughly enjoyed both the TV series and the book and would encourage you to read/watch them yourself. The subtlety of the author that I most loved is the way in which absurd, horrific, situations are presented in a dystopian world, but then with a few sentences the veil is withdrawn, and you realise that you have actually been looking into a mirror. It is this type of work, that shakes the foundations of some rusted-on indoctrination, which I most enjoy.

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

Captain Fan-plastic

As a father of five children, I often think about the various influences that they experience growing up in a first world country in a middle-class family. The constant drive towards consumerism, the emphasis placed on possessions and privilege rather than contribution and talent. An education system obsessed with scores and regurgitation, ill-equipped to teach children in a way most suited to their individual aptitudes and natures.

I often wonder whether their values, strength of character and health would be different if they grew up in a forest, living on the land and being taught in a way that encouraged them, rather than chose irrelevant measures to shame or falsely praise them with.

The 2016 film by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic, uses this concept as the central theme. I thought the actors in the film did a fantastic job, especially Viggo Mortensen in the lead as the idealist, socialist, father of six. My childish dig in the title of this blog is not made at the performances, but at the artificial nature of some aspects of the analysis presented by Matt Ross (writer and director).

While watching the film, there were several other films and books that immediately sprang to mind. The first one is Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, released in 2007. The references are unmistakable with the use of a bus, the sexual awakening in a trailer (American for caravan) park, and the placement of the ‘wild’ in North West America. Perhaps Sean benefited from the source material being a true story, but the theme of an ultimate failure to leave society for a better life in the wilderness seemed more appropriate for the subject matter than the seemingly trite ending of Captain Fantastic. I should also mention the brilliant sound-track for Into the Wild that features Eddie Vedder.

Another reference that springs to mind is the book by Miriam Lancewood covering her period of surviving in the South Island of New Zealand, Woman in the Wilderness. I have not read the book, but have listened to several radio interviews with Miriam. One of the things that fascinated me about Miriam’s description of her experience was the way that living in a survival mode felt so different in terms of mental load, and that living in a modern society is extremely stressful.

Real life examples of this type of survival exodus from Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild were also recalled while watching Captain Fantastic. Having watched this show is probably what triggered my biggest frustration with the film. The way that hunting a deer, killing it with your hands (knife) and eating the liver raw opened the film just didn’t sit at all with the experience that Kevin McCloud conveyed in his time with families that had done this type of survivalist sea-change. My thoughts after watching Kevin’s series was that these people had opted for a hard life, were ensuring that their children could never re-enter society if they chose to, and that the risks in terms of access to medical assistance and surety of food supply were high.

Other reviewers of the film have referenced the 1986 film, The Mosquito Coast, based on the book of the same name by Paul Theroux. There is an underlying discomfort during Captain Fantastic, that maybe Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a crazy zealot who is forcing his family to live a nightmare and that his actions eventually led to the death of his wife. So many of the historical efforts to find a utopia in the jungle have ended in the dystopian way described by Theroux.

Having weighed the pros and cons of taking children out of society, to live a nature based life, I have opted for a middle road. We live on a quarter acre, in a town of 5000 people and I commute an hour into work in the city. We have the space for chickens, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden and live only 30 minutes from a National Park. Our children go to school, but are encouraged at home to read widely and debate the fundamental ideas of our society, with no religious dogma or family political allegiances forced on them.

I still feel that we, as a race, have lost touch with our humanity when we drive to work in a car, sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and spend our days glued to screens of various sizes. Unfortunately, in the current economy, there is no way to provide food, shelter, and the means to fit in with the rest of society without working a city job. I followed with great interest the journey of athatcher85 on his YouTube channel Planting Freedom. If you want to hear the heart wrenching cry of humanity to return to a healthy existence, watch this video. What he has achieved over the past 4 years is incredible, but ultimately demands a lot of sacrifice for a family.

In summary, I enjoyed watching most of the film, but the knowledge that I came with meant that I saw much of the plot as contrived, and many of the real issues around living off-grid, were not accurately represented. I think the scenes where Ben brings his wild children to visit his sisters typical ‘white American’ family perfectly showed how unready the mainstream viewers are to tackle the real implications of the issues raised in the film.

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

Strange Days Indeed

So I have become accustomed to the recent Marvel movies having a relatively thin story-line when it comes to tricky moral questions. The movies are still exciting adventures in escapism, but the moral questions posed, “Is making weapons bad?”, “Is it okay to kill one life to save many?” and “Should we put ultimate power in the hands of a computer program?” are fairly well-traversed terrain with answers that don’t challenge the average viewer too much.

If found that Dr Strange, staring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a delightful diversion from this formula and tackled some of the genuine problems that face those who follow a spiritual path.

Those who go to Tibet sincerely in search of the Dharma
may settle down there once they arrive—those are true

 – Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun, Lecture 4

As a practitioner of an eastern cultivation system myself, I found this movie fascinating. It provided a faithful recreation of many of the challenges facing someone who is seeking answers to the questions that our present science struggles to explain.

In the quote above, Master Li Hongzhi, speaks about the importance of Tibet, and the surrounding region to people seeking a spiritual path. We don’t have to go far to find movies that have made use of this theme, Bulletproof Monk, The Shadow, Johnny English Reborn and Batman Begins.

Batman Begins is unique in that the other movies all use the premise that spiritual cultivation in Tibet is genuine and the Masters of the Tibetan schools have something worthwhile to teach. Instead, in Batman Begins, Bhutan stands in for Tibet and the mystical eastern school is devolved into an equivalent of Al Qaeda.

This is woeful American misinterpretation of culture based on a superficial knowledge and subsequent misrepresentation as a plot device. Anyone who had done the most basic study into Tibetan Buddhism would know that these schools shun involvement in the conflicts of society and seek to detach themselves from the struggles of humanity.

** Beyond here be spoilers. **

Back to Doctor Strange, there were so many issues raised in this movie so I will try to select a few examples. The story covers the challenging relationship between student and teacher, the availability of knowledge and the underlying conflict between eastern and western science/medicine.

Zhuan Falun or Turning the Law/Dharma Wheel is the key text of the spiritual/cultivation practice of Falun Dafa. The text is a compilation of a series of lectures given by the founder of the practice, Li Hongzhi, in china from 1992 until 1994. The reason I mention this text in the context of Doctor Strange is that a large portion of the nine lectures is general commentary on the various spiritual cultivation practices that have been taught over the past 2500 years. Some of the lessons closely correlate with the issues raised in the movie.

The first lesson is around the relationship between student teacher, beginning with the reason why individuals seek out a spiritual teacher in the first place. In the movie, Stephen Vincent Strange, is set on this path by a car accident which destroys his hands.

As a neuro-surgeon, even science’s ability to restore some function to his hands is not enough to stop him from descending into a downwards emotional and financial spiral. His search finally leads him to a secret school in Kathmandu, Nepal.

There is a very poignant moment where the door to the Kamar-Taj school, which is very plain, sits opposite an ornate temple entrance with colourful Ascetics out the front. Students of Buddhism will remember Sakyamuni’s time with the Ascetics before finding his Middle Way. Here we see the lesson that finding a genuine school is often not about the loudest, shiniest or most colourful peddlers of spirituality, but the quiet, hidden and un-assuming.

While in this movie the motivation is health, there are a number of other reasons which prompt a spiritual search, including a great personal loss, a thirst for power or possibly just the feeling that what you have been told doesn’t add up and the true answers must be somewhere. It has always intrigued me, as someone drive to search, the way that some people accept the dogma of their parents/society’s faith without question and others are driven to question and search more widely.

The next step is the moment where the wise teacher has their ‘everything you know is wrong’ moment with the student. In the case of Doctor Strange, this is a very in-your-face demonstration of other-dimensions, opening of the Third Eye and an explanation of how this physical world is just one of many.

My favourite one of these in other movies has to be the levitation of the X-wing by Yoda in Empire Strikes Back.

Interestingly, the average student of a spiritual practice may spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, experiencing nothing before a moment of enlightenment like the one portrayed in Doctor Strange. The relative ease with which Mordo reveals all this to Stephen should have been an indicator that all was not well in Kamar-Taj.

Some groups, which are not genuine spiritual schools but just thinly disguised pyramid schemes, are very careful about controlling the dissemination of knowledge. Freemasonry and Scientology immediately come to mind. The rule in Kamar-Taj that “no knowledge is forbidden”, as explained by librarian Master Wong, is quite unusual and brings me to the second topic of interest.

The dissemination of knowledge is a fascinating topic in spiritual schools. Some schools guard their secrets carefully, either because they want to charge ridiculous amounts for their piecemeal release or because they are genuinely concerned about the dangers of untrained use.

There is an episode of the excellent animated children’s series Kung Fu Panda : Legends of Awesomeness, Fluttering Finger Mindslip, where Po reads ahead in the teaching scrolls and wreaks havoc with some advanced mind-control techniques. The running joke in Doctor Strange is that in the books the warnings are written after the spells.

There is definitely something to be said for careful management of a student’s education, whether spiritual or academic. Then again, reading a text on advanced quantum mathematics probably won’t hinder your ability to grasp basic addition. However, breaking out the nuclear reactor kit on the first day of high-school chemistry could be disastrous. The shenanigans around Allegri’s Miserere is a good example of how powerful religious institutions seek to control access to knowledge, in this case in order to preserve the mystery.

I think that Doctor Strange did a good job of presenting this issue in the screenplay, as I was not ever exposed to Doctor Strange in comic book form as a child, I’m not sure how much of this was the screenplay writers and how much they were lifting from the original content.

The third aspect of the movie that I wanted to discuss is the difference between eastern and western medicine. The divide is probably not accurately portrayed geographically as there is evidence that western traditions, such as druidry had a certain degree of similarity with eastern philosophy in their understanding of the body.

There is a section in lecture 7 of Zhuan Falun where a comparison is made between western and eastern efforts when it comes to tooth extraction. One approach uses needles, drills, pliers and hammers resulting in lots of pain and blood,  the other uses a magic ‘drug’ that causes the tooth to come out easily. This story references a similar case in India but frustratingly makes no mention of testing or synthesis of the ‘drug’.

During Doctor Strange’s first encounter with the Ancient One, played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, she flips through a book of ‘alternative’ medicine showing Chakra’s, Acupuncture and then an MRI scan. The implication of the conversation is that each way of viewing the body is only part of the picture. This concept of reality being made of multiple layers of perception, where the broadness of the view equates to the level of attainment is key in some spiritual teachings.

As an engineer, this concept is practically demonstrated in the limited capacity of the human eye to detect the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. We spend our lives perceiving in a tiny sliver of the full reality of what our world looks like.

These three small examples are just some of the ways that I found this movie enjoyable as someone who has spent a lot of time studying spiritual paths. It was definitely not what I was expecting from a Marvel movie.

The film is also full of in-jokes from the spiritual world. The Master/Servant switch to generate confusion in the new initiate, the ‘sink or swim’ nature of the training, the commercialization of enlightenment in Kathmandu and the assumption that spiritual equals cult.

I look forward to the inclusion of Doctor Strange in future Marvel efforts.





Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

Review of The OA (Spoilers)

*This Blog Post Contains Spoilers*

I have just finished watching the first season of the Netflix original The OA. Not since Lost have I watched a TV series that questioned the fabric of human existence in the same way.

With only 8 episodes in the first season, it doesn’t take too long to watch. Brit Marling co-wrote the show with Zal Batmanglij and is also the lead actress. For a Netflix series I was impressed with the production, acting and scripting. It was especially nice to see Phyllis Smith from the The Office back on the screen, she plays the awkward middle-American school teacher brilliantly.

Production aside, what really interested me about the show were the themes and philosophical questions posed.

Hippocrates is famous for the oath which bears his name, and is still at the core of modern medicine. Wikipedia supports my lay-person’s understanding that it can be summarised as ‘do no harm’. We can assume that this applies only to humans, as much of our advances in psychology, neurology, and many other medical fields are owed to the lives (and suffering) of countless rats, mice, monkeys and other animals. When it comes to people, however, there is generally still a strong negative feeling regarding harmful, non-consensual experimentation on humans.

This is not to say that it hasn’t happened, the activities under the Nazis being just one example. The West is also far from unblemished as the MKUltra program run by the CIA in the 1950’s revealed.

In case you missed my spoiler warning, the core of this season of The OA is Doctor Hunter Percy, creepily played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), who is experimenting on captive humans who have undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).

Dr Percy is selecting NDE victims/subjects because they have a better survival rate when killed/revived multiple times. The supposed goal of the experimentation is to prove the existence of an afterlife. This topic is old ground and already the subject of significant real-world research, the Wikipedia page on NDE’s cites numerous studies relating to cardiac arrest survivors. Many of the aspects of NDE observed/recorded by science are faithfully depicted in the show.

Prairie Johnson, played by Brit Marling, becomes one of Dr Percy’s prisoners and through a series of lucid dreams / death experiences decides that NDE sufferers are angels and that an entity from the ‘other side’ is giving them physical movements that can allow them to escape.

This is the part that held my interest, the connection between human movement and spirituality. My children and I enjoyed watching both Avatar: The last Air Bender and the follow-on series, Legend of Kora. In these two shows, the Eastern belief that physical movement is not just about fighting but can also be used as a vehicle to control the elements is central. In my own practice of Qi-Gong (Falun Xiulian Dafa), this idea is also fundamental.

I have frequently visited Hawaii, and every time I see Hula performed I feel that this cultural practice has a much deeper meaning. Rather than just telling stories, or practicing fishing techniques it seems like there is some Sympathetic magic going on, just as there is in the dances of the first Australian People.

This idea is not without at least some recognition in the field of science. Mirror neuron research has shown that our brains have the capacity to observe movement and have it directly impact the motor centres of our own brain. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for the young of a species to quickly learn from their parents simply by watching what they do. At its most basic level, when you watch sport and pay attention to your own body, you will find yourself mimicking the movements. Thus the reason young boys will instinctively cover their own groin when witnessing a peer suffering an unfortunate impact.

The OA uses the sequence of attaining new movements as a plot device, and two movements allow the captives to revive a dead captive and heal a terminal illness. One of the other interesting concepts is the idea that these movements are gained by swallowing something while in a near-death state. The White Snake, collected by the brothers Grimm is one of many examples from folklore where wisdom can be obtained by eating a specific animal. The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairytales, by Donald Haas, has a whole disturbing section on food in fairy-tales, especially the cannibalism that has been largely edited out in the Disney versions.  I spoke a little about the importance of movement to religious/spiritual experience in my post on David Bowie’s Blackstar.

The season is full of plot-twists and hide-and-seek timelines common to any thriller, however, I didn’t have any moments where I thought “well that is just ridiculous”. I don’t know what it is, but some people seem to live their life without an overriding discomfort with religion and science’s inability to explain our existence coherently, whereas people like myself are constantly driving by this discomfort to wonder, search and postulate.

Entertainment like The OA prods at those uncomfortable grey areas of our knowledge and bids us to look into the darker corners of our consciousness.


Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

To Avoid Hitting a Mockingbird

I know this isn’t a folk music related post, but having just finished Harper Lee’s long, long awaited second (or first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, I feel the need to talk about it. Like most high school children in Queensland in the 1990’s, To Kill a Mockingbird was part of the curriculum. I honestly can’t remember if I read the book or just cheated and watched the movie, but the theme of the story certainly stuck with me.

Be warned that if you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman already, I will be spoiling it for you.

As a teenager, I admired Atticus. He was a stern but fair man of principles, the type of father-figure that children of the 70s and 80s could only dream about. Doing the right thing in the face of social angst was something that stuck with me, even to the point where sometimes it didn’t matter so much if it was right, but more that the well-to-do folk didn’t like it.

As a novel, Watchman is a journey of painful self-discovery for Scout, rather than a simple observation of the goings on around her. The idea that people can just be put into the category of bad-racists and good non-racists is challenged in the book. In some ways I think this was a more powerful message than the ‘shining knight defending the peasants against the selfish and ignorant mob’ style of Mockingbird. What struck me as so strange about this book from 1957 was that it could well have been written about a modern day New Yorker going back to their Trump supporting town in Ohio.

I have to wonder why, if the suggestions that Watchman was an early-draft Mockingbird are true, the book didn’t get published in the 1950’s in its original form. After all, racial segregation did not end in the US until 1964. If this book was finished in 1957 it could have added significantly to the debate, maybe Mockingbird was thought to be a milder message and would thus have a better chance of acceptance.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what happened in the US between the end of the civil war and the institution of legally enforced equality in 1964. I have had the good fortune to travel in the South of the US more than the average Australian and it was a sobering experience to walk through the relatively new display next to the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania back in 2014. The small but enlightening display is focused on recording the lives and treatment of African slaves.

I have also been to Williamsburg in Virginia and seen the depiction of life as a slave in pre-revolutionary America, to Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina where the history of African American emancipation is played out in the tiny slave huts that spread out from the plantation owner’s mansion. Driving through Augusta Georgia, and some parts of Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear that some forms of segregation are still lingering. On one of the trips to the US I was reading Uncle Tom’s cabin, so seeing these places in person definitely enhanced my understanding of the world that these events happened in. I didn’t have to drive far out of Charleston to find a barbeque restaurant with revisionist Southern propaganda on the tables.

While Mockingbird is about Scout seeing her father stand up for the legal rights of an African American, Watchman is about Scout coming home from New York to find that her father is a racist. The end of Watchman is a slap in the face, literally and figuratively. After being confronted with Scout’s father’s confirmed racist view she prepares to flee the town in disgust but a slap in the face from her uncle puts her back in her place. I cannot condone violence against women and could not reconcile Atticus’ views.

The sentiment that did stick with me was that we cannot combat racism and bigotry in our society by running away from it. In 1930’s America it was African Americans, in 2016 Australia it is Muslims. In the media, on Facebook and in our parliament we have people spewing the same vile racist views (yes I know Islam is not a race). Atticus argued that it is better to have these views out in public, rather than behind masks (or hoods), but I fear that the ears of impressionable youth, or ignorance don’t benefit from a diversity of views.

What can you do with a populace that isn’t capable of choosing between a rational humanitarian tolerance and hate-fuelled xenophobia? Scout’s uncle begs her to stay in the town because it needs more people like her, but I fear that people like Scout cannot do much but stand by and witness the carnage. The voice of reason seems to be whispered by the few into a howling gale.

I am not naïve, I know that the move from a society where few people are privileged and many people are in poverty is not easy. We have been failing at it for centuries, look at the French Revolution, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the destruction of the British Monarchy. All bloody, all just passing the reins to a different bunch of crooked thugs. But it felt like with the establishment of equality in law, the living wage, education and healthcare for all despite their wealth, that we had started to head somewhere good. Now we see that if you take away the shackles, we go back to killing and demonising each other quicker than you can say “Make America Great Again”.