Being Stillness

When I started this blog I called it “In Search of an Ideal” because there was a very particular destination I wanted to reach. The subtitle I gave it then was “Towards a pluralistic public philosophy.” What I wanted were not principles exactly, but atleast something conceptual to hold on which would articulate how people of diverse backgrounds, habits and values can live together in peace globally.

emerson-hall-harvard.jpgThe starting point of my thinking was the idea that the Enlightenment ideas of post-medieval Europe, captured in the modern, liberal theories I was taught in academic philosophy and which were passed around the world through colonialism, were limited and failed to provide the theoretical foundations for a truly diverse society. Primary evidence for this was the fact that academic philosophy was itself the least diverse discipline in the humanities.

Idownload.jpgf this was true, and given that America was founded in part, or mainly, on those Enlightenment ideals, it suggests that American society, and in particular it’s government, did not yet have the ideals, even conceptually, of how to foster diversity in a robust sense. Perhaps America doesn’t aim to be a land of “full and equal diversity,” and aims instead to be rooted in a historical Europeanness. If so, that is another matter. But insofar as America, as a country and as a concept, aims to be a land of equality for all, I concluded that if academic philosophy itself failed to live up to the ideal of diversity, how much further from such an ideal must be the nation.

download-1.jpg.jpgIf this was true, and if America was the greatest experiment  (or atleast , a great experiment) in the ideals of the Enlightenment, then it suggests that we as a species, around the globe, had not figured out, even in theory, what it would mean for the global situation to be just and truly democratic. What does it even mean to speak of justice and diversity at a global level? Of seven billion people? As someone with passing knowledge of marxism, critical theory and post-colonial theory, I felt that the global capitalism of the last 50 years retained and smuggled in many of the power imbalances of the colonial period. But what is the alternative, even conceptually, in theory? This I did not find in post-modern theories. If these theories critical of modernity left mainly unscathed the core Enlightenment ideals which were the bread and butter of “prestiguous” philosophy departments in the English speaking world – if they failed to change parts of academic philosophy – that suggested broader limits of these philosophies.

So what then would be, even in theory, a positive framework for a diverse philosophy curriculum? What would it mean to integrate the global philosophical traditions in an institutional setting? I felt certain the current set up failed completely in this regard. But what alternative was I offering, even in theory? None that I could see. My mind stalled at a positive conception of a fully diverse curriculum. And if I couldn’t think of what a diverse philosophy profession looks like, much less was I sure what a diverse America or a diverse world would look like. For any given conceptual framework I could say this wasn’t it and that wasn’t it, but asked to point at the thing itself  the ideal – there was nothing I could point to. But it seemed too mystical to say it was ineffiable. How could departments, countries and global infrastuture work on an ineffible foundation?

About six months ago my wife and I bought our first home. And some of the time my Indian-American mother and my wife’s Brazilian grandmother would be living with us, all four of us together. Here seemed in practice a way to think about what fostering diversity would look like, not at the abstract level of Indian, European or Brazilian philosophy, but in terms of the habits and practices of people with diverse backgrounds.

The motivation was simple: to ask at the philosophy professional level what it means to integrate Indian and European philosophy (in a department, or the APA) was to already start at too abstract a level. Whatever integrative frame work there is to be found, it would not happen only first at the level of books and curriculum  (though that is important), but in people’s lived daily lives. The clash of habits would reflect the clash of frameworks in a on-the-ground, trying-to-cohabitate together way. When such cohabitation becomes second nature, then what such people express in thought will be the conceptual articulation of a diverse community – a global, philosophical framework. One has to begin bottom up, not just, or mainly, top down.

And what happens when four people of different backgrounds and habits try to live together? One thing I have concluded so far is that living together is not aided by all four people, in a mixed family household, trying to articulate their beliefs and resolving them. For even such articulation presupposes a great deal of trust in each other, a willingness not just to get along together but to let each person be changed even in ever so little ways. And it is these little ways, little resistances, which point at the larger, deeper conceptual differences which they have internalized through their upbringing and enculturation.

What each person unconsciously brings to the interaction, insofar as they have agreed to live together, is a sense of what is fair and right and just as a way of living together – as that is sensible to them from within their own background. And tensions run high not when each insists on having their own way of life (in a selfish way), but when they assume, uncritically, but with all the strength of their habits and the life-worlds they have inhabited, that their background already provides a framework for their interaction. Passions are aroused not out of pettyness only (though sometimes that), but out of resistance to the idea that their framework was not already itself universal.

Here what needs to be cultivated is not “the true” conceptual framework which will enable living in a diverse home – one which one then uses to convince all others that this in in fact that true universal conceptual framework – but the habit and practice of living beyond one’s own conceptual framework, however sophisticated, that one is bringing to the conversation.

One has to live the practice of living beyond one’s own sense of right and wrong, as it is habituated in one’s instincts of anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, pride, envy, pity, compassion, and so on. Of course, this doesn’t mean one doesn’t think and reason. But that one develops the habit of knowing, contextually, when thinking is helpful and when it isn’t, when thinking or reasoning might inspire harmony and when it only prolongs the conflict.

And what is true for the home, is no less true for fostering diversity in academic philosophy, or the country, or the world.

Now I have changed the heading of the blog to: “Peace and Diversity with Non-Ado”. Fostering diversity is the skill of being still and peaceful so that one is not misled by the false sense of diversity which many of one’s thoughts, habits and modes of reasoning reaffirm.

So in a sense I am still searching for an ideal. But in another sense, I am not. For I feel that what I thought I was seeking is not found through more willful effort of seeking, but with being with the stillness already in myself and the world. The more we are with that stillness, the more we find each other there, and without effort are open to each other as we are.

One thought on “Being Stillness

  1. Gautam

    From Seng Ts’an’s “Faith in Mind” (a buddhist poem from around the 7th century):
    The Supreme way is not difficult,
    if only you do not pick and choose.
    Neither love nor hate,
    And you will clearly understand.
    Be off by a hair,
    and you are as far from it as heaven and earth.

    Stop activity and return to stillness,
    and that stillness will be even more active.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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