Soul searching beyond sensual pleasures leads to Burning Karma
Davíð Rafn Kristjánsson was born in 1982 in a small town called Akureyri in the north of Iceland. In his early 20s Davíð became intrigued with the Buddhist understanding of human nature, including traditional Yoga and Eastern philosophy.
He lived in Beijing for 4 years where he was involved in a community of spiritual and creative people. At this time he started writing his novel, Burning Karma. He continued to move to different places and add to his study of spiritual matters, living in Cambodia for 2 years and then in an Ashram in India.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Davíð. From Iceland to China, Cambodia and India, how have these journeys informed your writing?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: Thanks for having me and delighted to have a talk with you! Well, living in Asia for 7 years had everything to do with my writing, it shaped who I am and therefore shaped my writing. When reflecting on my years in Asia, you could think that the Great Wall of China, The Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia or the Himalayas were the highlights, but that´s not the case for me. It´s the amazing, inspiring people I met on the way and amongst them a Reiki master, a Buddhist monk and a Baba in India that all became my teachers and affected my writing the most.
Vinita Kinra: When did your inclination for the Buddhist way of life begin?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: Well first of all, I´m not sure if I define myself as a Buddhist, but Buddha´s teachings had an immense influence on me and continues to do so. It was around the age of 20 where I started to wonder if there is anything more to life than seeking sensual pleasures. Like for so many people, I started seeking answers when my life was a struggle, unresolved pain surfacing and not understanding how to deal with life. I started reading everything I could get my hands on, everything from Krishnamurti, Yoga books, self-help books, books on Buddhism and more. But it was when I started to read the scriptures with a teacher and dig deeper into what Buddha was actually teaching and practicing what he taught, that I started to understand my suffering and my life started to improve.
Vinita Kinra: What triggered the idea for your debut novel, Burning Karma, and what does the title signify?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: I was living in Beijing at that time and was exploring inner work with a group of spiritual seekers and artists. I started to look at beliefs I had about the world and myself, and out of that work I started writing. At this time, I was reflecting on my past actions, my karma. I realized that my past actions had directly influenced my life to date. So I systematically tried to change old thinking patterns, old beliefs and breaking old habits. As I was burning my own Karma, I almost automatically started writing the book Burning Karma. It´s kind of a cliché to say this book wrote itself, but that´s kind of the case. It was like this story had to be told.
Vinita Kinra: Do you believe travel encourages spiritual growth and leads to an enlightenment of the soul?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: Not necessarily; It’s how you travel that matters. If you want to expand your mind, I believe you need to put yourself in conditions that allow you to grow. Whether that’s walking a mountain, spending time in an ashram, or something else that gives you a chance to grow. You can walk a mountain full of anger, but if you walk a mountain trying to be mindful of your anger, you might learn a lot. I realized the hard way that spiritual path is not easy, it means a complete transformation and looking deeply at your flaws. If your travels involve lying by the pool, drinking cocktails and eating luxurious food in a different country, the only expansion is the debt on your credit card bill, not the mind.
Vinita Kinra: How has your perspective on life evolved since you embarked upon your spiritual quest?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson It has changed everything, a 180 degree turn. And “perspective” is the key word. The world keeps turning but my perspective has changed. As my perspective started to change along the way, independent of what was going on in the external world, I started to ask myself if you could be free inside a prison, for example. I started to wonder if everybody was a prisoner of his or her own mind, including myself. And if I was a prisoner, how could I break out? How can you be free, independent of your external conditions? Burning Karma is partly about this.
Vinita Kinra: In Burning Karma, your protagonist goes through an intense psychological experience while recovering in a hospital. Share with our readers how the plot of your novel thickens around this event.
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: This experience in the hospital in China sparks a fire in Böddi (the main character) to go search for something beyond his sensual pleasures of drinking, smoking, sex and other things. This started chains of events that led Böddi to Laos, where he meets his first spiritual teacher, Max. Böddi starts to look more and more inwards in completely unfamiliar and foreign conditions where questions start to arise regarding life and existence. Until the very end when he tries to correct his Karma.
Vinita Kinra: Is Burning Karma autobiographical in the sense that the spiritual experiences you talk about in the book derive from your personal life occurrences?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: Once I got home to Iceland after my time in Asia, a lot of people asked me if the book I was writing was an autobiography. I thought “Am I dying? I´m only 33!” Of course, it’s based on insights from experiences and influenced by the people I met. I will let the reader decide what he thinks is based on my life and what is not. It’s a novel. My own life story would just be too weird of a story. Often reality is way more twisted then fiction.
Vinita Kinra: Share with us your publishing journey. Was it smooth sailing or filled with pitfalls?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: Well, I have got to say that it’s been an incredibly smooth journey. I “randomly” met my publisher in a hostel in Iceland. We talked for a few minutes and I sent her a copy of my book. Few weeks later, I had a publishing offer in my mailbox. This whole journey with Burning Karma has been full of strange coincidences like this, but of course, there has been learning curves since it´s my debut novel. Phil and Tracey at Wild Pressed Books publishing have been absolutely great to work with and we seem to be on the same track the whole time. Like I mentioned, this book seems to have its own way and we are just a team of people doing the footwork to support it.
Vinita Kinra: What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing Burning Karma?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: The only challenge was myself. We all have some ideas about ourselves and in my case so many ideas and self-doubts had to be crushed, looked at and questioned. Many people have told me lately, “I could never have written a book like you”, and I think “wow that’s exactly the ideas I had to crush at the beginning of my journey”. On the spiritual path, you try to develop a questioning mind, to question everything around you. Also, I believe that knowledge comes from experience. I put myself in some intense challenges trying to grow and out of that Burning Karma wrote itself in a way.
Vinita Kinra: You left Iceland during the financial crisis of 2008. Would you have been a writer if the economy had not been jeopardized?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: The economy collapsing in 2008 in Iceland was a blessing in disguise for me because it forced me to make a change. And I know for so many other people who found in retrospect that it was a blessing even though they were losing their homes, jobs and things. Maybe it was the realization that these where only material possessions, and losing them you noticed how attached you can be to things. Yes, this affected me in becoming a writer, alongside so many other things in my life.
Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?
Davíð R. Kristjánsson: First of all, I don´t believe there´s a stagnant point in the universe and the same goes for my life´s philosophy, it keeps changing and evolving, even from day to day. But it´s beginning to be grounded in the teachings I recieved from my teachers. So my life´s philosophy today, at this moment in time, is the teachings of METTA.
“Good morning, Böddi.”
“How did you sleep?”
“Okay, I guess.”
I ought to cheer up a bit since I was a guest in his house. Max eyed me perceptively.
“I told you that the Energy in the house is very powerful,” he said.
“You will go through all kinds of feelings while you’re staying here. Help me with breakfast. Please put some plates on the table for us.”
“Okay.” My voice was dull, like I used to reply to Mom when she asked me to do things.
“How are you?” Max was stirring a pot.
“I’m all right.” I wanted to eat before talking. We sat down at the table, Max in his natural happy state. I was heavy, low on energy and feeling depressed.
“Stop it.” Max used a level voice. He drew the knife across
“Stop feeling the way you are feeling. You are ruining my
I looked down at my food. “Stop it,” he said again, reaching for the butter.
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
A short silence while we bit into our food and swallowed. Then Max looked up.
“Stop it,” he repeated, more gently. “What the fuck, Max? Stop what?” Then, fearing a fight, I raised both hands in a surrendering
gesture. Max stood up. He walked slowly around the table and
placed his hand on my shoulder. He leant down so he could look into my eyes. I held my breath. In the way I was becom- ing used to, he emanated calm.
“Listen, Böddi. Now listen carefully. This is not a game. This is serious. You have no idea how lucky you are to sit in this chair. If you see this as a game then you better start playing it wisely. People on this planet play different games all the time. Some people play the money game, living to get more money. Some people play the family game, they live to have more children. Some people play the career game, those ones live to achieve success.” He maintained eye contact with me while he was speaking though it was the hardest thing for me to stick with. I fought the urge to stand up and leave.
“If you want to look at this as a game, Böddi, then this is the master-game you are playing right now. You are on the fast track to burning all your karma. If you choose to leave, then go, I won’t stop you. But if you want to stay you will have to start to listen and learn. Understand? Are you willing to stay on track?”
I have never finished anything in my life.
I can’t leave now, I made a promise to myself: to trust The Ex- perience.
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Vinita Kinra, featured among 150 most remarkable Canadians, is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.