The Pursuit of Bravery: An interview with Benjamin James

Author: John Lucas Kovasckitz with Benjamin James Roberts

 

(Mobile devices are fine, but due to the visual aspects included, this interview is best viewed via a computer.)


Ben, by trade, is a musician, photographer, and videographer. Sliding in and out of his different creative roles he requires two personas to keep things straight: Benjamin James for music and Ben Roberts for his visual work.

Ben is also one of my favorite people on the planet, a man who holds my deepest respect.

He's consistently been one of my closest allies for my own creative pursuits - freely sharing his advice and experiences, contributing to my work (he's played piano and provided vocals for both "Promised Land" and "A Thousand Cathedrals"), and his opinion is one I value extremely highly. But above all, I value Ben as my friend and brother. 

He stood by my side on my wedding day and left it all on the dance floor, we've explored Iceland together with our spouses and good friends ("Love Teach Me" below - filmed on our trip), and we've sipped a lot of tea together asking the difficult questions of faith, philosophy, and how we are to live. 

Ben is a listener, a deep observer, and subsequently a teacher by example. And when he sets his mind to something, he's all in...and it shows in his work and in his life. 

Ben's work is simultaneously abstract and deeply personal; to this point, the subject of a great portion of his conceptually visual work is his wife, Lydia. Ben's portfolio is breathtaking (pieces placed throughout his interview, and a link at its conclusion) and he has amassed recordings of over 30 (incredible) songs in the past few years.

Check out his portfolio, dive into his music, check out his synth skills (currently on a U.S. tour in John Mark McMillan's band through mid-November), but first: keep scrolling. Ben's interview has nuggets of gold, folks.

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In a variety of avenues, you make your living by being creative. What are some of your practices to remain creatively sharp, and what advice would you have for others to help to foster and grow their own inner creative flames?

 

Ben: Practice is really the key word for me here. I used to think of creativity as some kind of magical process in which the gods randomly chose a tortured artist to be their mouthpiece for a day. This view sometimes fosters the absurd belief that an artist doesn’t have any “influences” but just creates things out of thin air, regardless of their cultural situation. Instead, I think it’s more accurate to define the creative process as a discovery of unexpected connections. In other words, the creative person is able to combine things that everyone else thinks are incompatible. With this in mind, the practice of creativity involves gathering as many influences as possible and seeing how they might work together. Legos provide a good analogy: you can create something nice with a few legos, but the more building blocks you have, the more interesting a structure you can build. The magic of legos, and creativity in general, is not the fact that the individual legos can combine to create a structure, but that different combinations will be created depending on who is building.

For me, staying creatively sharp requires: 1. A constant gathering of influences that I find inspiring and excellent (new music, new photography, new videos). And 2. Developing my skill set enough that I am able to actually make my ideas a reality. Another analogy: let’s say that inspiration is water and your skill set is a funnel. The larger your funnel - aka, the greater your skill set - the more water can come through. You can see why it’s important to keep your skill set and your influences well balanced; there’s no use gathering an ocean of influences if your funnel will only let it trickle out. Conversely, there’s no use, from a creative standpoint, in developing your skill but not gathering enough inspiration to do something new and exciting.

To put it simply: practice a lot, and constantly expose yourself to amazing work other people are doing in the same area.

If, for example, you are a writer, read the best, most beautiful books in the world. Then, figure out why those books are the best, use whatever you find in your own writing (practice), then repeat the process with an author of a totally different style. It really doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. Imagine the style of Victor Hugo (who wrote Les Miserables) paired with the science fiction storytelling of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy, I Robot). Or, in music, what do you get when you add Kendrick Lamar with Bob Dylan and Bon Iver? Could be pretty interesting. The last thing I would say is to simply refuse to stop creating. Of course it feels terrible when somebody doesn’t like something you’ve made, but as long as you keep going, you’ll eventually make something that you can be proud of and that other people will appreciate.  

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Your latest album is entitled “Change Is Everything”. What are some of the physical and spiritual foundations of this thesis that you have found to hold true? Also, personally – either currently or aspirationally – how do you see yourself transforming and evolving?

 

Ben: Well first I want to preface by saying that the statement "Change is Everything" is a metaphysical claim that has some strong implications and brings with it a whole set of difficult philosophical problems which I am not qualified to solve. Instead, maybe I'll focus on why the idea interested me in the first place and what it could mean for the way we approach reality.

For me, spirituality was always tied in some way or another to the natural world. My Mom jokes sometimes that all it takes to make me happy is camping and food. But my relationship to the natural world really changed when I began learning about sustainability and humanity's relationship to the planet in general. At that point, treating the planet (and my body as a part of the planet) appropriately became an ethical problem. That was all fine, but I was still aware that there were deep problems in the way I saw things. I had heard someone say that the less you know about philosophy the more likely you are to be controlled by it. That was definitely true for me. I was approaching the world as if Aristotle's work on Physics and Metaphysics were still the authoritative understanding of nature. In that way of thinking, the world is made of substances whose natural state is to be at rest, separate from other things. Everything that moves only does so as a result of being "pushed" by a mover. Rene Descartes, a French philosopher in the 17th century, carried this line of thought further by positing the existence of two different substances that the world was made of. The first of these substances was matter, the second spirit, or mind. Following from the definition of substance these two things were necessarily separate in the strongest sense of the word. We then have a world in which the mind is completely separate from matter, and matter is made of isolated things that do not depend on anything else for their existence. It’s a lonely, valueless picture of the universe.

This is no longer the dominant view of science. But I think that this line of thought has contributed much to the lack of value we place in our planet, as well as our feeling that we are somehow separate from it. It's much easier for me to destroy my own body or dump plastic in the ocean if I think that matter has no inherent value and that I am not ultimately affected by anything that happens to it.

So with this in mind, I've been trying to explore new ways of looking at myself and the world. That is the real subtext of the new album. For me, saying that "Change is Everything" is a way of resolving some of these problems. It's a reference to Process philosophy, which says that the world is not made of things; the world is made of events. These events are then composed entirely of relationships; everything is in the process of becoming. This can seem pretty non-intuitive but think about this: if we could live for a billion years, objects like rocks - which seem very permanent - would look like a momentary getting together of sand. Another helpful visualization is the fact that glass, although it appears to be solid, is technically a slow moving liquid. It's common to look at something like a flower and to assume that it is separate from everything else, but why should we believe this? There are no such things as flower atoms. A flower is made of completely non-flower elements. When springtime comes the sun, the dirt and the rain are drawn up into a beautiful symphony that we call "flower". But how can we understand the flower without referencing the rain? Or the rain without understanding the clouds? Or the clouds without talking about the ocean? The ocean without the rivers? Or the dirt without talking about the minerals and the worms? How can we talk about the sun without mentioning the Milky Way? In this way, our flower is not just itself, it is the entire universe as expressed in a pretty little plant. The same is true of us humans. As Carl Sagan once said, "We are made of star stuff".

In a process view of reality, relationships are fundamental. But these cannot be two things in relationship, then we are just using Descartes' vocabulary. We are in the habit of thinking of things like "left" and "right" as two separate entities in relationship with one another. But imagine a 12-inch ruler: it has a right side and a left side, and is connected by the tick marks that run across its surface. But if we cut it in half we haven't separated the left from the right, we have only created a new left and right. That's because left and right go together. It's very useful to talk about them like they are separated - and we should continue to do so, for the sake of convenience - but we have to keep in mind that we are imposing an arbitrary distinction, and that distinction is most likely not a characteristic of the physical object. Now to stretch our analogy as far as possible: replace the 12-inch ruler with the universe itself and the process view of reality as made of ever-changing relationships comes into focus. It is similar to the root systems of redwood trees. Although Redwoods seem incredibly tall, their root system is comparatively tiny. In order to remain standing, they spread their roots as far out as possible and mingle with the roots of other redwoods, and collectively they are able to stand. Nothing exists in isolation, everything depends on everything else.

Another consequence of this line of thinking is that the idea of a Self dissolves. If I am not just a thing that changes but a set of ever-changing relationships then there can be no fundamental distinction between myself and the world. And further, who I am in this moment is not who I was or who I will be. This is very much in line with my experience. When I think of who I was in high school I barely recognize myself. I've found that every experience changes me on some level. There is also potential for a therapeutic approach to life latent in this. If everything is always changing, it is useless to try to hold on so tight to things. When something bad happens it's natural to adapt to that situation in whatever way we can, and then continue to act that way whenever an analogous situation arises. This can be helpful and important for a time, but once the situation has changed and we are no longer in danger, we need to be able to re-adapt to our new environment in a way that is appropriate and non-destructive. I'm not saying that all of our traumas would be resolved if we would just be in the moment and realize that things have changed since the original trauma occurred. But I am saying is that this understanding of things gives us a way to work through those issues on a daily and even momentary basis.

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One of the things I love about you is your thirst and quest for knowledge, and the subsequent excitement of discovery and understanding. What’s “blowing your mind” these days, and what have been some of the monumental books or texts in your personal quest that you would recommend?

 

Ben: Currently my mind is being blown wide open by science, philosophy and critical thinking. Up until the presidential election last year I was mostly against these things, thinking that they were dangerous to the creative process and hopelessly inadequate attempts to get at the truth. I think I was wrong. In a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news” I don’t think we have the luxury of subscribing to such weak epistemological foundations (by epistemology I mean “how we know what we know” and “why we believe certain things”). This sounds a little academic, but bear with me. I realized that the foundation for most of my beliefs had nothing to do with evidence but with my desire for things to be a certain way. This caused me a lot of anxiety because I was constantly being confronted by a reality that didn’t act the way I thought it should, and as a result I had to either change my beliefs in such moments or try to ignore/suppress the evidence that was telling me I was wrong. Most events in our lives aren’t intense enough to warrant a total change in belief system, but some demand it. And when we find ourselves in those situations my experience has been that it is dangerous to ignore the facts. Of all epistemological systems I know of, I think that the scientific method is most aware of this. That is because science is attempting to explain the world not as it should be, but how it is. And it turns out that scientist are actually serious about this. If new evidence suggests that the current explanation is inadequate, they will try to find a better explanation. In this sense, nothing in science is sacred except truth itself. While this certainly shouldn’t be applied to every area of our lives (especially not Ethics), I think we could all learn something from this approach.

Smartphones and the internet have made information more available than food for some people. And if that constant stream of information is here to stay, we will all need a better way of figuring out what we should or should not believe. If the only criteria for our believing something is whether or not we like it, or whether or not it works to our advantage, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment, and even more anxiety. I’m finding that skepticism and critical thinking are a really good way of addressing this problem. And, ironically, they have actually increased my sense of wonder and imagination. It turns out that reality is sometimes more interesting and crazy than anything we could have thought of.

But I do want to reiterate that, at this point, I'm not trying to say that science and philosophy are the only valid way of seeking truth. I just think that they are very important for maintaining a strong democracy as well as a strong belief system.

Here are some books that have been really influential for me. I can’t say that I agree with everything in these books, but they have changed me nonetheless:

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand     

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn

Animal Farm - George Orwell

The Perennial Philosophy - Aldous Huxley

A Psychological Approach to the Trinity - Carl Jung

Discourse on Inequality Among Mankind - Jean Jacques Rousseau

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Germinal - Emile Zola

The Three Pillars of Zen - Phillip Kaplan

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind - Shunryu Suzuki

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant

A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking

Reality is Not What it Seems - Carlo Rovelli

The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan

Currently reading: The Big Picture by Sean Carrol and The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Connect with Ben: 

http://www.benrobertsphoto.com

Instagram: @benjaminjamesmusic

Music: Spotify / iTunes