Belief In Fantasy by: James Wolanyk

I was a freshman in high school when I first sat down to meditate. It was far from the monastic picture painted on desktop screensavers and self-help book covers, however. I remember that five-minute session as a maelstrom of self-criticism, of frustration, of disbelief at the utter chaos going on within my skull. All I wanted was to shut myself up. I wanted to hear the silence. Looking back, it’s a wonder I found any measure of peace at all. But this is not an unusual experience; this is, in fact, the standard panic of almost everybody who delves into meditation for the first time.

And yet, despite the unglamorous nature of that initial attempt, my curiosity about the world of formlessness (or enlightenment, or peace, or oneness, or whatever name you might prefer) has never ceased. It’s been explored through writing, art, reading, and—of course—meditation, but the pursuit has never grown stale. Subsequent conscious states explored in meditation were, to varying extents, fascinating enough to supersede nearly everything else in my life. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t want to write a book about dragons or scale armor. I didn’t want to write about space empires. I wanted to spread the word of the infinite bliss, peace, and self-realization available in every breath.

This preoccupation came to a head nearly two years ago, when I experienced something so radically strange that language cannot capture it (and yet I will now attempt to do so). For a moment, just a moment, it felt as though I did not exist. A body existed, as did the world, but it belonged to nobody in particular. And my, what a magical feeling it was. Suffice to say, the experience was one of “transcendence.” It was the punchline to a cosmic joke I didn’t know I’d been hearing. It was a momentary state of completeness beyond anything else I’d ever encountered. It didn’t feel like consciousness had shifted—it felt like the structure in which consciousness arose had been reprogrammed, suddenly opening up dimensions of perception that now seem alien and impossible.

With that in mind, my writing is, perhaps, a love letter to the spiritual peaks and valleys that sentient creatures are capable of experiencing. These are also the sort of stories I seek out. Not all of these stories feature overt spirituality, I would argue, but they share a common trait: They represent a form of living meditation. Any good and honest story, one which makes you feel something and keeps you thinking long after it ends, is invariably meditation on existence. These tales offer candid insight into the beliefs and conscious experience of another human being, which may be the closest any of us will get to knowing the nature of God in our lifetime.

Taking a cue from literary giants, C.S. Lewis was never coy about the Christian themes embedded in his work. Neither was he ardent about them. The imagery, symbolism, and redemptive angles to the work made themselves known through the power of the storytelling. This remains true today: Children are captivated by Aslan’s bravery and sacrifice rather than his messianic depiction, and although the Narnia installments are a staple among fantasy-inclined Christian circles, it’s doubtful they would have endured if their elements of faith weren’t underpinned by an engaging narrative. This is also true of Tolkien, whose dichotomy of good and evil is extremely on-the-nose but far from colored by religious dogmatism.

This is not to argue, of course, that literature is (or ought to be) some sort of smokescreen for religious ideas. Rather, it’s my best assumption about why we gravitate toward stories that feature these cosmic themes—good and evil, rebirth, magic, the human condition. They are the great unknowns of existence. Furthermore, as I alluded above, it seems impossible to write a story without religion or spirituality involved in it, even if these aspects are not present on the surface. All stories feature life, death, happiness, sorrow, so on and so forth, and these are all perennial mysteries that we can “understand,” but seldom make peace with. Not without appealing to forces and explanations beyond the material world. We’re walking, thinking arrangements of carbon and water. What could we possibly know about reality?

To a person who truly believes in the divinity of the world, it’s irrelevant if others believe in the framework or not. The truth, as you might term it, is the truth, regardless of how popular it is. And, following that logic, if the world is a divine emanation, then everything occurring within the world (or featuring the world) is a similar extension of that divinity. In a sense, that’s why I avoid speaking zealously about questions of God and eternity. If these things are true, then they are true independently of my belief in them.

The beliefs that govern my day-to-day life, and hence the beliefs that trickle into my storytelling, are truths that I have observed time and again, and truths that can make an enormous difference in the lives of human beings: We are an unknowable “thing” experiencing consciousness (which even science cannot yet fully explain, referred to as the Hard Problem of Consciousness), we are slaves to our biological impulses until we tame our minds, and we are capable of tremendous, unconditional love toward the world and its inhabitants.

My relative ignorance also means that I don’t claim to know how things “ought” to be. That’s why my work has never been, and will never be, a platform with which to attack the beliefs of another being (whether they identify as atheist, a committed believer, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, so on and so forth). Every sentient being is incredible and dear to me because they are, fundamentally, part of the same chain of “being” that contains you and I. Some may call these beliefs spiritual, others may not.

Ultimately, these labels don’t mean anything in the grand scale of things, and they mean much less in the world of storytelling. An enormous portion of my work has a strong fixation on eastern philosophy, reincarnation, and the cyclical nature of existence (even consciousness), but in my eyes, it would be a shallow tactic to label them “religious” fantasy novels. These are stories that feel needed, and that, in my wildest dreams, are capable of provoking existential thoughts in the people that engage with them. Whether those thoughts lead someone to God or just smiling more often are out of my hands.

In fact, these stories often feel like they were given to me rather than written by me. They feel like echoes of the big bang, a random assembly of thoughts and ideas that popped into my head out of nothingness, a fever dream of one sentient being shared with countless others. That’s what makes art so spiritual to me. It could not exist without the world, and yet the world is changed by it, moment by moment, in a kaleidoscopic feedback loop. As a pandeist might say, God is everywhere and everything—writing is just one of his shapes.”

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