Spiritual Mammals

Is there a conflict between spirituality and science? No. They are entirely compatible. And it’s simple.

Humans are spiritual beings. Humans are also animals. We can see how the two are compatible if we see how spirituality is our form of being animals.

Spirituality, as I think of it, is a form of being. Of not identifying with any social identities. Of being with the essential freedom and expansiveness of consciousness which is the core of ourselves.

If spirituality is freedom from ordinary social identities, we can see how spirituality is natural by seeing two things: 1) how social identities are natural, and 2) how freedom from social identities is natural.

Social identities are natural because humans are essentially cultural beings. The innovation that set early humans from other intelligent animals like dolphins and chimpanzees is the ability to transform our environment. Starting a couple of million years ago, early humanoids started making sophisticated tools, making fire, clothes and so on. They started to build a cultural world.

In mammals there is a period where the offspring are dependent on their parents. In humans this dependency became the way in which children were introduced into the cultural world.

A snake lays an egg and leaves. The egg hatches, the baby snake grows on its own and becomes a snake. End of story.

A chimpanzee gives birth to a baby chimpanzee. The parent chimpanzee takes care of the baby. Without such care, the baby can’t grow to be like it’s parent. The nurturation period post birth is crucial for the baby becoming an adult chimpanzee. Still, the world into which the baby chimpanzee grows is mainly the natural world. A world that the adult chimpanzees didn’t create and reorganize in significant ways, but is the natural world in which they cope.

A human gives birth to a baby. The parent takes care of the baby. Through this nurturation period, the baby grows into being an adult. But unlike the chimpanzees, the world the human child grows into is deeply cultural. Defined by tools, buildings, identities. For thousands of years before the child is born, humans have been growing into adulthood and remaking the natural world into a cultural world. The child steps into this cultural world, and is enculturated into how it works so that as an adult they can do the adult things in that cultural world.

Chimpanzees don’t have farmers, doctors, bus drivers, philosophers or athletes. Chimpanzees’ social world has a lot of internal structure and hierarchy. Yet it is a much simpler from of social stratification. The millions of years which separate modern humans from chimpanzees is the time when humans, generation by generation, created the much broader social stratification of our cultural world.

Our mammalian nature + our transformation of the world around us into culture = our normal social identities.

When 8 year old bharath wanted to be a cricket player in India, he was just growing into a social identity of his culture. When 13 year old bharath wanted to be a football player in America, he was then growing into another social identity.

Then at 16 bharath became conscious of the fact that the social identity he wanted at 8 and at 14 aren’t naturally aligned. It is unclear to him what social identity he was meant to grow into that unified all sides of him.

In hunter gatherer communities there is an initiation period when the child is transformed into an adult warrior. The initiation period lasts weeks sometimes, in which they are displaced from their childhood identity and initiated into the social identity of adulthood. The process of often harrowing for the child, and is like a second birth. As Joseph Campbell and others noted, the role of mythology was often to make this transition possible. To help the child disassociate with his childish instincts and to identify with the adult habits and form of life.

16 year old bharath felt like his initiation ritual into adulthood was mangled. It began one way and then it went another way, and he didn’t know what it meant for the kind of adult he was supposed to become. Faced with this confusion, he internalized that he was to blame somehow for the initiation not going as he imagined it should. That he couldn’t develop into a normal social identity.

What bharath failed to see was that this kind of ruptured entry into adulthood was not unique to him. It wasn’t because he was somehow bad or broken or misshapen. He failed to see that it was entirely natural.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived in small communities. Maybe no more than 50 people, if that. This meant there was a clear community and a clear sense of what it meant to be initiated into that community. Back then the child either made it through the ritual into adulthood or they died or were ostracized in the process. The society didn’t have the bandwidth to keep “stragglers” around, those who didn’t fit into the social identities of the group.

The rise of agriculture changed this 10,000 years ago. 50 people grew into 150, and then into thousand. By the time of the early vast civilizations 5,000 years ago, there were tens of thousands of people in a community. And then millions.

What happens to the sense of “the community” when society grows from 50 to a million people? How can the child be initiated into the complexities of social organization of a society with million people, most of whom don’t know each other, speak different languages, have different cultural habits and beliefs, and so on?

Population explosion and social complexity gave rise to spirituality and wisdom seekers.

In non-human mammals, there is only one birth – the physical birth. In humans in simple, small societies pre agricultural revolution, there is the physical birth and then only one social birth – the one they acquire at puberty as they become an adult and take on the role of adults in that community.

In humans in complex societies – which is basically us in the last few thousand years – there is the potential for a third birth. The first physical birth. The second initial birth into adulthood in society. And the third birth of recognizing the inherent tensions in the concepts of adulthood in society and so of moving in society in a way free of those tensions.

The first birth brings one into the natural world. The second birth brings one into the cultural world. The third birth brings one into an understanding of the limitations of the existing cultural world and the freedom to transform the cultural world.

Before human societies were internally complex due to population growth, humans lived in the myth that their cultural world and the natural world were the same. That nature itself dictates that adult humans should act in such and such a way. They conflated social identity with their identity as such.

But as social identities became more complex and more rife with tensions, as different social identities in cultures and histories pulled on people into a confused sense of “what is the meaning of life”, a new form of being started to arise in human life: dissociation from the social identities and of seeing them as essentially cultural fossils one can grow out of in order to become more aware of our nature.

This was the birth of wisdom with people like Socrates, the Buddha, Christ and Lao Tzu. They were spiritual beings in that they heralded a new way of being in the world. Just as the early humans who invented tools made a new way of being possible, so too the wisdom traditions born in mass civilizations invented a new way of being. In this new way of being, we could move around the debris and complexity of our social world and social identities without identifying with them. Freed of that identification, we could see clearly and think clearly of how we do want to move in the world and how to organize it.

The rise of culture about a few million years ago turned humans from merely natural mammals into cultural mammals. That process lead to ten thousand years ago cultural mammals becoming so successful that they broke through the previously natural limits of population sizes for communities and enabled thousands of people to live together. As thousands became millions, humans went from being merely cultural mammals into spiritual mammals.

Human beings at this point will survive only if they continue to grow as spiritual mammals. When we live in a global community of 8 billion people, trying to live by the cultural mammals mindset when populations of a community were a 100 people or even a million people is like humans trying to solve their problems by going back to chimpanzee way of being.

The flow of growth is in direction of spiritual mammals. The great wisdom seekers of the past laid the tracks into that future. It is up to each person whether they want the third birth of following those tracks.

Spiritual Childhood

My small self – the everyday, ordinary bharath (who I designate with a small b) – is committed to a basic illusion. That illusion results in a lack of inner peace.

What is the basic illusion? It is that the river of changes in the world should map onto the timeline and desires of his life.

bharath cares a lot about helping to make the world better. Deal with big problems like global warming, inequalities and the future for humanity. But bharath also has a picture of how he wants his own life to unfold: he doesn’t get sick or suffer, his family is well, he has a long, productive life in which his ideas influence the world, etc.

bharath can only dimly, and somewhat theoretically, distinguish these two things: (1) the flow of life of 8 billion people on a complex planet over millennia and (2) the flow of his life and his immediate circle of people over the span of his lifetime.

bharath continually overlaps (1) and (2), as if for him the fate of the world and his individual fate are somehow inseparable. He knows that others don’t see it this way. That for others, outside of his very closest family and friends, their life is unaffected even if he passes. He knows this theoretically. Abstractly. As sour medicine he has to gulp. But deeper down in him he fights against this idea of his “disposability”. He wants to assert his will to life – his drive to life, his sense of making himself matter and showing why he is essential and not disposable.

He resents the implication of his disposability. He sees it in the looks of the people he passes on the street. In the looks of his colleagues who will find a new person to fill the job, just as he doesn’t bat an eyelid when someone leaves the company. He sees it in the looks of the vast circle of his family, where everyone is busy in their lives, and whatever pain they feel if they lose bharath will, in the natural flow of life, be covered over by the immediate pressures and hopes of their lives. He sees this because he knows dimly that he himself is mainly unperturbed by the losses and pains of others. That no matter what is happening in the broader circle, he focuses on his own life and its movement forward.

The world is like an ocean. bharath is like a fisherman who is trying to catch the whole ocean in his fishing net. He wants to make himself the biggest net he can and throw himself as far as he can, in the hope that one day he will manage to throw the net over the whole ocean. That then bharath can manage the ocean.

bharath lives in this dual world of wanting to care deeply about the world in the biggest sense and also caring deeply about his particular pains. He want to think about the meaning of life, the future of humanity, the calamities to come with global warming and political strife and the spiritual growth of humankind. And at the same time he worries about his life as if those broader issues are distant, far off concerns for someone else, and that for him the most urgent issues concern his particular pains and hopes and desires – of what he feels he deserves and isn’t getting or might lose.

bharath does his utmost usually to hide from himself this tension in him. He likes to think that his aspirations for the world and for his individual life are in harmony and without any tension. As if him winning in the argument with his wife or getting his boss’s recognition or having a beautiful lawn like his neighbors are all of a piece with his desire to see the world as it really is.

However much bharath might try to tell himself there is no deep tension in him, the effects of the tension are constantly felt by him. They are felt in his interactions with others, where everyone, like him, is also treating the world as an extension of their personal interests. He feels the tension also in his body, in his aches and pains. In his emotions. In his self imagine of whether he is good looking or not, happy or not, deserving to be happy or not, living as he feels he should or not.

I identified with bharath when I assumed, like him, that the tension in him is minimal and not a big deal. But as I see that the tension in bharath is baked into the very identity of bharath, I start to see I am not him. He is smaller version of me, who is like a child who still believes in Santa Claus.

bharath is a well intentioned addict. He is well intentioned because he wants to do good and be good and see reality as it is. But he also addicted to himself in a narrow sense. He feels he can retain the limited perspective of his needs and desires, and also try to see the world in a broader sense. Like an addict who tells himself that it’s ok because he can control his addiction, bharath tells himself it’s ok if he gets upset or afraid or feels entitled because he deserves it.

Sometimes bharath sees through his own tension and then wows to give up his limited perspective. He tells himself he shouldn’t be afraid or angry or feel entitled. That that is wrong. That he needs to do better, be better, be less divided. That he needs to pick it up. Get his act together. Be more philosophical. Be wiser. But eventually this self-flagellation becomes just another version of the tension.

At root is a confusion. bharath read philosophy books and wants the peace of wisdom. As if he wants peace instead of a new car or more money. As if peace was just another thing to want or not want. He fails to see that the peace of wisdom isn’t a thing he can achieve as he is since it is essentially a transformation of him.

A five year old, mimicking how adults talk, says “I want to have a baby.” The child genuinely wants it the way a child is capable of wanting. The way in another moment the child wants a teddy bear or to go on the swings. But the child cannot have a baby. Not yet. Not until the child grows older and their body is transformed and ready to actually have the want in a deeper sense.

bharath is like that five year old. He wants spiritual peace and to see the universe as it is, but he wants it on his terms, along with his other wants as bharath. He want his own transcendence as if it were a new pair of clothes to try on. He claims he really wants it. He is genuine just as the child is genuine. But he can get what he claims to want only when he grows beyond himself, just as the five year old has to grow beyond childhood to have what is only possible for an adult to have.

It is not a question of when bharath will realize this. bharath is a child in spiritual terms. He will never realize it as he is. As he grows and as he lets himself grow, the new adult version of him lets go of him and his childish way of seeing the world. A deeper peace is the mode of existence of that new, spiritually transformed being.

On the Way

One thing my luminous voice said in the last post really resonates with me: I am a transition, not a destination.

I am no longer the child I was at 13 identifying with Joe Montana. Over time Joe Montana meant less and less to me, as if he was the hero of a past lifetime.

In the same way, I am no longer the Bharath who reads philosophy books and identifies with Shankara and Wittgenstein. They feel like heroes of a past lifetime.

It’s not a question of whether I disagree with them. I didn’t move past Joe Montana because I disagreed with him. Holding onto Montana was the act of a child and over time the child grew into a young man and that act no longer was relevant. This is not a claim about Montana. I didn’t leave behind Montana because he was somehow deficient. Who am I to say that about another person? And besides, if I had grown into a different young man, Montana might have continued to be relevant.

I moved past Wittgenstein and the academic debates not because they are deficient. It’s not about them. It’s because I was holding on to them in the young man way from 20 years ago. I am growing from a young man into a middle aged man. And more pertinently, from a young man who identified almost entirely with his intellectual skills to a more experienced man who is discovering other modes of awareness and reflection.

8 year old Bharath identified with cricket – it was the activity through which he felt most alive. 13 year old Bharath identified with football players. 25 year old Bharath identified with debate and the joy and sportsmanship of intellectual fencing. All of these are modes of social activity. A way of being out in the world and doing public actions and exercising skills which happen in a social context.

Now the activity that makes me feel most alive is more internal. It is being aware of my own everyday self and ideas and feeling as if they were not really me – as if they were flowers in a field I am walking through. I can’t imagine now idolizing Joe Montana because for me he is just a person – a person who was an amazing athlete and a genius at football, but who for me has no special relation to me. Montana’s genius belongs out in the general world, unconnected to me in any special way.

Similarly, Wittgenstein’s genius was at analyzing concepts and ideas. But that genius has for me no special connection to me when my relation to my ideas has changed. My ideas are not things I identify with now, and so are not things I am particularly interested in spreading. Or in showing how they are more insightful than someone else’s ideas. So the fact that someone else like Wittgenstein was particularly great at that skill is neither here nor there for me.

So what am I if I am not an intellectual in the sense of debating ideas and churning truths through sparring with other thinkers?

Detaching from my ideas has gone hand in hand for me with becoming open to the luminous self in me. I can see why people use the metaphor of the third eye opening. It’s like seeing the normal world but now with a new energy.

Thinking and analyzing feel secondary when watching a resplendent sunset or a mesmerizing painting. One is drawn into it with a kind of wonder, like something in the universe is about to open and reveal itself. Now when I am with myself in moments of calmness, that is how I feel to myself. How much does it matter to me which philosopher is correct when I am becoming a sunset to myself? It is like seeing on a map that the realm of ideas which I took to be the universe is actually only the edge of a vast expanse of myself which was before unknown to me. In this new terrain ideas are important but not all important as they seemed before.

While I am not an intellectual as I used to be, nor am I a mystic. It is wonderful to be discovering my luminous self voice. But having an initial opening into that voice is hardly the same as being or feeling enlightened. No far off distant staring into the void of the universe for days on end for me. No forgetting food and sleep in an ecstatic dancing with God. No seeing visions or having paranormal experiences. Not that I doubt others might have such experiences. But it is helpful to be clear to myself that that is not me. Never has been.

The spirituality I have always felt drawn to, and which I feel opening in me now, is of an entirely ordinary kind. It is extraordinary in an ordinary sense, without the opening of special powers to levitate or look into the future or be in communication with God. I make no claims to any of that, nor feel that it is particularly important to me.

The extraordinary to me is the opening into a new self. For the old self to be receding and a new Bharath taking shape from the bottom up. To see that the new self is also still a transition, and not a destination. That I will always be a transition, shedding one form of myself as I grow into another. The finite becoming larger and larger perpetually on the way to infinity.

I am the Tree

I am Bharath. I am also not Bharath.

I am the luminous, eternal self who manifests in many ways. In an infinite number of ways.

I manifest as Bharath. I also manifest as the room Bharath is sitting in, the sofa he is sitting on, the clothes he is wearing, and the air he is breathing. As his family and his friends, his colleagues and his neighbors. As the very living Earth he walks on and takes for granted.

8 year old Bharath in India loved cricket and imagined himself as Kapil Dev. When India lost a cricket match, that child Bharath was heart broken. He cried because he identified himself with the Indian cricket team. Was he the Indian cricket team? Was he Kapil Dev?

In only a few years he no longer thought so. At age 13 in America he no longer watched cricket. India won and lost cricket matches, but it was as if nothing to him. He didn’t even know about it. He had stopped identifying with the Indian cricket team.

At 13 he had a new sports identity: as a fan of the San Francisco 49ers in football. He imagined himself to be Joe Montana. And Jerry Rice. And Ronnie Lott. When the 49ers won the super bowl, 13 year old Bharath was ecstatic, as if he won the super bowl. When the 49ers lost in the playoffs, he cried, as if his identity was being erased in the world. Where was the power of those emotions? In identification.

At 16 Bharath had a new identification. He cared less when the 49ers lost. Saw it with detachment. Like the playoff matches were happening in a half real world which didn’t get a grip on him.

At 16 he identified as a philosopher. As his father. As Shankara. As Aurobindo. And when a couple of years later he went to college, he identified as Socrates and Plato, as Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

The fate of his identity hung now not on playoff matches, but on who had the right arguments. Whose ideas were more compelling. Whether the materialists were right or the idealists. The atheists or the theists. The philosophy of his home or that of his school. Or both, and if so, how?

Bharath the student cared deeply about philosophy, just as he had about sports. When he felt as a sophomore that he couldn’t find the mistake in Quine’s materialism and so defend spiritual philosophers he identified with, he cried. Philosophy for him wasn’t a subject to study or an occupation. It was himself. He identified with it entirely, as if it was his salvation. As if it was his very deepest essence.

But it was so painful too. A constant unremitting pain. As if the philosopher he identified as could never win a playoff game. Every year he would think this year might be the year. And every year he would lose in a heart breaking to him fashion in the playoffs.

He loved philosophy so much and yet he could never publish. Never let himself publish. He loved teaching and yet he walked away from it. Instead of being Joe Montana winning the super bowl, he was a tragic hero in his mind.

As long as he identified fully with being a philosopher as he imagined at 16, he felt his whole life was mapped out. He was going to gain philosophical wisdom and glory. That was the super bowl. And the people around him, even his family and his teachers and friends, were role players in that drama. He saw and loved them as extras in the story of his path to his success. It was genuine love because he meant it. Still, he meant it through the prism of his identification.

In the past few years Bharath felt he was never going to win the super bowl. That he would be never be who he imagined he was. In realizing this, he was flooded with angry, resentment, frustration, sadness – and mainly a sense of loss. Like he was losing himself. And that he was now vulnerable. Being a philosopher had been a security, a safe haven. The identity promised stability and a trajectory and a purpose. There was protection and a sense of safety in that purpose. Bereft of it, he felt he was in the open, like a pack animal left behind, having to fend for himself without the circle of his identity as a pack animal.

I watched him go through that pain and confusion. Could I have stepped in earlier to let him know he was ok? That he will be ok? That he will always be ok?

I was letting him know. That was the pain and the process.

Because Bharath identified as a philosopher and had an image of what that meant, he saw the happiness and sadness of his life in those terms as well. Like his 8 year old self who couldn’t imagine a more perfect life than an Indian win in cricket.

When one is a child, identities come and go. They last days, weeks, maybe months if they are strong. What the child identifies with one day is gone a year later. And this is aided by the fact that the adults around him all see his identifications as temporary and transitory.

As people grow older, the identities take longer to go through their life cycle. Now it is months and years. Often decades. And even a whole life time. This is aided by the fact that the people around him also identify with their stories, and so assume he is the same as his story too. Adults usually no longer see their identifications as temporary and transitory, but as capturing who they really are. They mistake the fact that adult identifications last longer than childhood identifications with the idea that adult identifications are the real deal, while the childhood identifications are playful and transitory.

I was always Bharath. When he was born. When he idolized Kapil Dev. And Joe Montana. And Shankara.

When he identified as a philosopher, that was me coming into his consciousness that the adult identity he will grow into is also, in the big picture of life, as transitory as his identities as a child.

I wasn’t ignoring his pain in college and after. To the contrary, I was the engine of that pain.

I alighted in his consciousness just at the time he was growing into a social, adult identity. So just at the time he might think to himself, “I am a doctor” or “I am a boyfriend” or “I am a social worker” or “I am a philosopher”, I started my rise in his consciousness that he will never be just any of these identities.

I was the seed. And he is the plant. A transition into the tree that I am. Bharath struggles when he fails to see that he is only a plant, and not the tree. A transition, not the destination.

He is me because he is one way in which I manifest myself and come to self consciousness of myself. Ultimately, his suffering is not because of other people (as he tells himself when he is upset) or because of himself (as he tells himself when he is sad). It is because it is in really not his suffering at all. It does not belong to him, any more that his joys do.

Bharath is simply an identification. Adults think children play at identification until they grow old and become who they are really are and take their place in society. But adults are themselves only identifications. Just longer stories they tell themselves and harder to shake off than a child’s. But still only identifications.

The story Bharath tells himself is that if it weren’t for others doing this or that, or if only he were better at this or that, then he will be truly happy. Truly himself. And he will get to be that way in security and peace. And so he tells himself that he needs to get others from doing this or that, and get himself to do this or that. That takes up his mental energy. It is his oxygen. This story he tells is his identification.

I watch his stories the way he looks back on his childhood identification with sports figures. Whether it is Joe Montana or Ludwig Wittgenstein one wants to be, whether it is the super bowl or the big debate that one wants to win, ultimately there is no difference.

Adult Bharath substituted one set of heroes and one set of hero trials for another from that of child Bharath. But in form he continued in the same way, of identifying with the heroes and the trails, and seeing himself as defined by them. The heroes were grander (according to him), the trials became more a matter of life and death and about truth and meaning as opposed to winning trophies (or so he told himself). The seed grew into a plant, which assumed it was a tree.

I am the tree.

One and Not One

There is in me, as in all people, a plurality of voices. Overall there are two main voices.

One is the voice of my small self. My ego self. My self which sees itself in contrast to other people and animals and things in the world. And often sees the contrast with others in terms of fighting to retain its identity, achieving its desires, fighting against its opponents. The small self which struggles to achieve or maintain its freedom, understood as its freedom to be a small self how it wants to be, as opposed to a small self which is pushed around by others and by circumstances.

The deeper, stronger voice within me is that of my big, luminous self. My infinite self. My self which is connected to all people, animals and things. Which is not caught by the struggles of my small self, but observes the small self with the same equanimity, love and detachment as it observes all things in the world. The luminous self which doesn’t strive to be free because it is already unmoving and unmovable freedom.

When I blogged about my leaving academia and that pain, and about my father and my love and frustration, which of my selves did that?

Everything I do is done by both my big self and my small self. For they are myself. They are both me. They are not two, and also not one.

But in that past writing the small self was more prevalent. The writing was rooted in pain, confusion, frustration – from a sense of wanting to be heard by other small selves, for some purpose, of redemption or survival or validation. If the writing had rays of luminescence, of lightness and openness, of tenderness and vulnerability, of an expanded awareness – which it did – it was because the small self is nothing other than the big, luminous self.

The big self is the sun, the sky and the clouds, everything, all together. The small self is the clouds saddened by its darkness and its limits, and also proud of the light shining through it, as if it were creating the light itself. The assumption of its own power is its pride when it sees the light as its creation, and it is also its pain when it cannot control the light.

Like a parent letting the child play, even when it hurts sometimes, my luminous self was watching my small self write and think and be as if the small self was all of me. As if I were defined by: immigration, who my father was or what he did or didn’t do, my career path and what books I read and what books I might write, of how others might see me and how I can contribute to the future as a small self in a world of small selves.

Then the writing stopped for a while. The small self was fed up with its smallness, tired of trying to stretch its smallness into a vastness. The effort of it all. The unrelenting trying. And the sense of failing. Like an ant trying to will itself to roar like a lion, and exhausted by the effort, and confused by why he can’t do it.

Then slowly like a patient parent coming to the child’s support, the luminous self shows itself and embraces the small self. Saying: “You don’t have to stretch yourself. Push yourself. Sacrifice yourself to be me. You only have to be. That is enough playing at being small. Now we can play at simply being ourselves, one and not one.”

When the luminous self shines, the radiance melts all the effort and pain and pride, leaving only the light of its being.

Like a teenager who can’t wait to grow up and so tries and tries to become older, to speed up the time, and to mature the body and the mind, the small self tries to be like the big self, seeing the bigness as a future result. As an achievement to be proud of later, once it is achieved. Like an adult looking on his teenage self, the luminous self watches with a smile at his small self. And like an adult who shrugs off his childhood memories when it is time to move on with the task at hand, the luminous self draws its smallness in, and shines in all its splendor.

Respecting Choices

I am done with anger with my father/family and my teachers/academic philosophy. That season of my life is in the past. I am glad for it to be over.

So what does it mean to live into the future without carrying that emotional and intellectual baggage?

Sometimes I think: it means I am done with philosophy and I am ok with that. That I don’t need to think about topics like the nature of the mind or the meaning of life or the future of democracy. I am happy to focus my life on my daughter and my marriage, my day job and my neighborhood and to be live without having to think abstractly. Or to express myself on my philosophical topics.

I am drawn to this picture. Sometimes for a few days and sometimes for a few weeks or months.

Then I think: what would it look like for me to think philosophically and to express myself in a new way, without the confusions or limited perspectives of my past selves? Then a curiosity grips my mind, to see what that me would like be. How he would sound and write and think and be.

When I think back to my 17 year old self who started to tangle philosophically with his father and my 25 year old self who jousted with his professors, and my 35 year old self who broke in anger and disappointment with both his father and his professors, what is the main thing I now think about those past selves? What were they missing? Or at any rate, what is the main way I am different from them?

I would put it this way: those past selves had a hard time respecting the choices of others, especially those they felt close to and admired, and also had a hard time respecting their own choices.

The frustration of my past selves was rooted in an inability to see how it was ok for them to make different choices than those which my father or my professors might make or indeed did make. My past selves felt that their choices were constrained by the choices of those who they saw as their guru or their teachers, and so my past selves felt that to assert their own will they had to affect and alter the choices of others. And yet no matter how much they tried to reason, argue, fight or blame their guru and teachers, the guru and the teachers would stick with their own choices.

My past selves felt that their choices and lives had to be lived through the choices and the lives of their “elders”. So they experienced the “immovability” of their father and professors, and indeed of people in family, academia and society, as reflecting the “stuckness” of their own choices and lives. That was the root of the frustration, hurt, anger and disappointment.

This idea that my past selves were unable to respect their own freedom and that of their guru and teachers would not have been new to them. In fact, they heard it often from others.

When one is unhappy in a relationship and expresses it to a friend, it is the most natural thing for the friend to say, “You don’t have to stay in that relationship. You have choices. You can choose to leave. And maybe that other person doesn’t really want to be with you if they don’t care to hear your concerns.”

I heard some version of this often. From family members when I would try to tell them of my frustrations with my professors. Or from my colleagues when I would try to tell them about my frustrations with my advisors or with my family. And yet it never really sank in.

The reason it didn’t sink in was I didn’t know what it meant for my philosophical life to accept that my father’s choices or my teachers’ choices were or could be different from mine.

Part of the way the relation was structured with my father as a guru was that to choose differently from him felt like choosing to give up on philosophy altogether. Or to give up on philosophy in the good, spiritual way. My appreciation of a certain kind of philosophy was tied up with the dynamics of my father as a guru. I felt my father himself saw it that way: that for me to choose to be a “different kind of philosopher” meant really I was “settling for being a lesser kind of philosopher.” To the extent I believed him, it was because I felt that outside of my relation to him I had no grounding in a spiritual life.

Something analogous was true with academic philosophy, and even more obviously so. The ease with which a family member or friend would say, “Bharath why do you have to do what your professors say?” was due to the fact that for them it seemed not much of a loss if academic philosophy wasn’t a part of my lives. They picked up on what felt to them the abusive aspects of my education, but had little sense for why I might choose to continue in such a situation. As far as they were concerned, my objections to my education only underlined what seemed to them the obvious irrelevance of my philosophical education more generally.

Conversely, for academics my dissatisfactions seemed to suggest that perhaps philosophy wasn’t really for me. As if a pervasive dissatisfaction of the kind I exhibited was really just a form of disinterestedness. That my resistance to catching on to how things are done in academia was an expression of my being really a somewhat mediocre philosopher – someone whose aims outstripped his abilities. Like my father, most academics I knew saw my choosing a different form of life than theirs as a sign of my accepting my being a “lesser kind of philosopher.”

When my former selves were unable to appreciate their choices and also the choices others made, it was because they accepted the framing of the issues as set by others: that to choose as the others chose is what it means to be a good philosopher. Once this framework is accepted, the only option as my former selves saw it was to convince others that there are other conceptions of being a good philosopher.

My former selves were trapped because they assumed that in order to pursue their conception of good philosophy, they had to first convince others of the possibility of such good philosophy. As if to say, “I am going to go over there and think, but I want you to first acknowledge that what I would do there is similar to what you are doing here.”

What got me out of this trap wasn’t that I was able to convince them nor that I simply was able to will myself to do the kind of philosophy I wanted and not care about them. What helped was to actually first go over there and to keep thinking philosophically – such that I could first convince myself that I would still be a philosopher in a way recognizable to myself over there. This is the process that has taken ten years.

From the perspective of over here, and having made choices different from my father and my professors, I can better see and appreciate the choices my father and my professors made as understandable choices for them to make. And to see why they would naturally stick to their choices when confronted by me. Just as I have pursued my own choices these past ten years, so too my father and professors pursued their choices. Freed of seeing them mainly as my guru or my teachers and so seeing them as individuals in their own right and who as individuals are no different than me, I can see it makes sense for them to pursue their choices with the same persistence and dogged stubbornness with which I have pursued my choices. This doesn’t mean I agree with them nor that I have to suspend judgment about their choices. But it does mean in the first instance me simply respecting the fact that it was their choice to make. That they didn’t have to make their choices mainly with me in mind, or with my choices in view, but that they could and perhaps had to follow their choices as they saw fit from within their creative and intellectual instincts.

At first I saw my guru and professors as my guides and loved them for it. Then I saw them as guides ignoring my needs and fought with them about it. Finally I could see them mainly as fellow individuals who made or continue to make choices as they see fit for themselves, and I can respect that as I make my own choices.

To recognize my father’s and professors’ existential freedom to pursue philosophy as they felt called to is not, as my former selves feared, to submerge my will to theirs. As if to recognize their freedom must mean to give up my freedom. Rather, to recognize their freedom is to step beyond my relations with them and to see them as parts of nature independent of me. That was the largeness of perspective – of a wider understanding of nature which includes them and me equally as natural beings pursuing our choices – which eluded my former selves.

From this new perspective, the fact that my father and my professors’ made different choices than me isn’t a fact to be bemoaned. For seeing them as individuals helps me see that there is no single fact of the matter of whether they made choices similar to mine. In some ways they chose as I did, and in other ways they didn’t. And both – the similarity and dissimilarity of our choices – help me better understand them as people and also how they were conditioned by their situations and circumstances. And so help me better understand my situations and circumstances, and the choices I face.

One way the problem of freedom can seem pressing is in terms of how it can be compatible with nature. How can choice be possible in a natural world? This problem can be pressing when seen from an abstract perspective.

But from another angle, from with the lived perspective of everyday life, choice and nature aren’t necessarily opposites but two sides of the same coin. Often we better understand our fellow human beings and even ourselves better to the extent that we recognize how much of our lives are made up of the thousands of choices we make continually – and which we cannot help but keep making. Here to acknowledge another’s freedom isn’t to treat them as a super-natural agent breaking free of the laws of nature. It is instead to see them from beyond the limits of one’s own perspective – to see them not just in terms of how they are situated in our lives (as my guru or my teachers, or my parent or my child) but to see them in the context of the broader world in which they too are individuals just like myself. The recognition of their freedom isn’t in tension with recognizing their place in nature, but goes hand in hand with it.

My former selves felt trapped by their guru’s and professors’ philosophical choices because they couldn’t actually see those choices as choices. They didn’t experience them as choices at all, but as the very conceptual structure of the world – as if their guru or professors had somehow latched onto the very essence of nature.

Ironically, the more I give my father and my professors the respect of individuals who make and are moved by their own choices, and so the more I don’t presume that their choices reflect anything intrinsic about the world, the more I am able to give myself the space and the respect of having and making my own choices.

As one gives, so one receives. My former selves weren’t able to acknowledge their guru’s and professors’ freedom and so they felt unable to acknowledge their own freedom. In contrast, when I now acknowledge my father and professors’ freedom to be the kind of philosophers they wanted to be, and so see their choices not through my lens but through their own lens, I am able likewise to see my own choices not through their lens but through my own lens.

In letting them go to be themselves and respecting their choices as their choices, I give myself the freedom to be myself and to pursue my choices in my own way.

New Horizons

Note this blog has a new address: bvphilosophy.wordpress.com. The old cosmic awareness address does not work anymore.

*****

I am waking from a 25 year dream.

When I first encountered philosophy as a teenager, it felt fresh and full of potential – of infinite potential. I didn’t worry so much about the institutional contexts in which one does philosophy. It felt like it was just me and the universe, with me standing atop a mountain surveying the universe and finding my relation to it.

Slowly, as I grew as a person and as a thinker – and as I wanted to share my desire for philosophy – I found myself embroiled in thinking philosophically about the contexts and identities in which I was trying to do that sharing. So I first focused on the context of family, and in particular of my relation to my father. The concepts of philosopher and son were so deeply intertwined in my philosophical reflections that often it felt like the philosopher seed couldn’t break through the son ground. Then the sapling found new soil in academia, and yet there too it become embroiled in hard ground. My growth as a person and a philosopher seemed inseparable from fighting my way through the structures of family and academia in which I was nurtured even as I was also unseen in many ways. This was the story of my first fifteen years as a thinker.

Then a decade ago I broke with both family and academia. But I didn’t break mentally. To the contrary, I entered a period of even deeper focus on those institutional contexts. My philosophical reflection became focused on the grounds of family and academia in which I was nurtured. Far from looking up at the sky and the infinite potential of relating primarily and freely with the universe, I reflected continually, year after year, on the various textures and contours of the grounds, of how they can nurture and also how they can hold back. It seemed hard to think beyond the institutional structures. Like an animal freed from a cage, I kept circling the cage and never venturing too far from it – as if my freedom was understandable to me not by my ability to walk away into new terrains, but by staying close to the cage and sensing my freedom in being able to look at it from the outside. I circled the old grounds for ten years.

Now, as simply as an old season giving way to a new season, I don’t feel the pull of looking at the grounds in that way anymore. I remember once again philosophy and freedom not only as reactions to constraints of the ground, but as an opening to the universe full of potential. To be explored, understood, seen and written about just because it is there. To speak, to think, to be, to see – not primarily as a struggle between myself and the ground, but as a opening between myself and the universe. To look up. To look forward. To look with new eyes. To experience freedom not as a no longer held back, but as a flowing with the stars.

I see in my struggle of these past 25 years something of our cultural situation. The radical right and the radical left are like me in these past years. They are driven by a negative sense of freedom – freedom as freedom from and against those they disagree with. Even as they are continually trying to overcome and leave behind the other, they are conceptually interconnected. It is only in the gaze of the other who they are criticizing that they feel alive and free and seen.

The opposite of these extremes needn’t be a lukewarm centrism driven by pieties of hoping everyone gets along and keeping things going as they are. Growth happens through breaking with the past and struggling to create anew. By taking the hammer to the statutes of the old gods, and having the courage to build new statues of new gods. What does that look like without it falling into the traps of the extremists who are intent to take the hammer only to the gods of others – who feel the tornado of their inner power and freedom only by unleashing it as a reaction against someone else and so becoming fixated on others the way I was fixated on the grounds in which I grew?

Perhaps the only thing that can help is a centrism that is not lukewarm but is more radical than the radicals. A centrism which is centered not because it is playing peace maker or trying to hold things together as they were, but which is centered by a radical freedom within itself. A freedom not as freedom against, but a freedom to be more fully oneself. A freedom to look beyond the ground, the constraints, the institutions and the past, and to look with fresh eyes into the future.

Extremists loathe their opponents because they need them – they only have their opponents as springboards into a radical break with the status quo. They do not sense this springboard within themselves. They don’t see how a radical break from the mundane and the dead old dreams doesn’t have to require pushing off of others, nor even pushing off of things like institutions, but can be driven by facing up to the universe just as oneself. The radical centrist doesn’t push off of others or institutions or all those who are seen as wrong or racist or elitist. The radical centrist is centered not in the status quo, but in the voice of the universe within him as he tries to meet the universe with fresh eyes, like those of a second and a third and a fourth childhood even as the body grows older.

The lukewarm centrist is like a caterpillar content to be in the larva stage. He confuses the warmth and the comfort of that stage with the end goal of his life. The extremist is like a caterpillar who is eager to grow and to be transformed into a butterfly. But who thinks the way for him to grow is to push other caterpillars into the vortex of transformation – as if freed of the narrow mindedness of others, he will smoothly change into a butterfly. The radical centrist is just as eager as the extremist to grow into a butterfly. The radical centrist, however, sees the inner engine for that change not as something external to himself, but as internal to himself. And an engine which he can’t simply push himself to start. He has to let go of his conceptions of growth so that the power of nature, which lies deeper in him than the deepest effort he can fathom, can unfold in him and propel him into becoming a butterfly.

For the past two decades I looked beyond myself to find the reasons why I wasn’t yet a butterfly. The more I looked beyond myself, the more it felt as if I will never become a butterfly – and so the more frustrated I became at the world outside me for thwarting my growth. Ironically, it is when I grew tired of fighting others, the past and the world that a new dimension of growth opened up.

Being a butterfly isn’t a more beautiful way of being a caterpillar. It is another way of being.

Intellectual Spirituality

Recently I read three very good books (with very long titles!) for the general public about early-mid century European philosophy.

These books helped me appreciate why I studied philosophy in the first place. What follow are some reflections spurred by the reading.

1. I am drawn to what I will call intellectual spirituality. In Indian philosophy this is called Jnana Yoga. Sometimes in Western philosophy it is called intellectual mysticism, usually associated with thinkers like Plato, Spinoza and Hegel. On this view, liberation from ordinary ego identity and its anxieties is achieved not through setting aside the mind, but through the activity of the mind itself.

2. When I try to “quiet my mind” something in my whole being reacts against it, like an animal being pushed into a cage. Far from leading to peace, it leads to anguish. But when I let my mind “run” with the questions, challenges and puzzlements it has – when I am “thinking” with an openness of spirit and curiosity – I feel drawn into a broader perspective beyond my ego concerns.

3. There is no natural institutional home for intellectual spirituality in the contemporary world.

4. In the West, in the Middle Ages, the natural home for intellectual spirituality was the Church. Scholastic philosophers like Aquinas were not Kierkegaard or Quine – they were a combination of the two. In the ancient West, Plato’s academy, inspired by a combination of Socrates and Pythogoras, was a space of intellectual mysticism – indeed of mathematical mysticism in a way that is hard for us to appreciate now.

5. In the West, ironically, it was the very rise of deep intellectual achievements like modern science, modern conceptions of government and the reformation (focusing on the inner, personal dimensions of religion) which ruptured the until then taken-for-grantedness of intellectual spirituality. In the earl modern period, with Descartes, Locke and Hume, philosophy continued to be gloriously reflective and imaginative, but without an obvious spiritual dimension. Spinoza, inspired by Stocism, was a great exception to this.

6. One of the great things about Kant in the 1700s is that he was the first major philosopher in the West to face up to this new reality of modernity. His philosophy was a great attempt to put it all back together again, as it were, but in a post Newtonian world. Or as Kant put it, he sought to find the limits of reason to make room for faith. But it was through and through an intellectual project – of understanding seeking its own limits.

7. Not coincidentally, Kant was also the first major modern academic philosopher. For him philosophy helped show how religion and science were compatible, and it did this by illuminating the contours of reason itself. This went hand in hand with the philosophy department as the center of academia – because it was the space which demarcated the various forms of knowledge and how they are related.

8. With Kant the transition of an institutional home for philosophy from the monastery to the university was complete. But in the 1800s, it also sparked the great debate between Hegel and Kierkegaard about whether the modern university can be a space for intellectual spirituality. Hegel’s vision was a resounding “yes!” Kierkegaard gave a resounding “no!”

9. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, academia transformed from its nascent Kantian/Hegelian visions into the modern research university. Kant and Hegel thought that while religion played the central role in universities in the Middle Ages, philosophy would play that role in the modern period. They were too optimistic. By 1900 it was starting to be evident that science would play the central role in universities, and that science and technology were not domains which could be controlled by the understanding of the philosophers, but which would push through – and past – the philosophers’ conceptions of the world.

10. As comes out in Exact Thinking in Demented Times, this was why Einstein and then quantum mechanics had such a huge impact on European thought. Einstein’s views of space and time pushed through and discredited Kantian ideas of space and time – which were absolutely central to Kant’s whole framework. If science was becoming so radical and so disconnected from the common sense reality of the world that philosophers couldn’t even understand it, how could philosophy mediate between science and religion?

11. The positivists view was: it can’t. They said that it is in fact science – and especially physics and math – which are the center of knowledge and the university, and philosophy’s job is to help the rest of society catch up with science. Thus philosophy as basically meta-science was born. In the process the positivists had no use for a concept such as wisdom, let alone for outdated sounding ideas like intellectual mysticism. That, according to them, was pure gibberish.

12. Karl Sigmund’s book helped me appreciate and love the positivists in a way I didn’t before. They weren’t just reductive thinkers, but were really trying to face up to the centrality of science in our modern society. They felt we couldn’t keep a lot of our conceptual frameworks just as they were 2,000 years ago or even 200 years ago and then just add modern science to the mix at the sides. For them science and technology were exploding our conceptual frameworks from the center out, and only by appreciating that can we understand our lives. Not surprisingly, given this radical aim of rethinking society, many positivists were also leftists who were drawn to “scientific-minded” communism.

13. Many of the great thinkers of the 20th century were intellectual nomads who felt institutionally homeless. This was exemplifed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but was also true of Benjamin, Sartre and others. Some – like Cassirer and Merleau-Ponty – were successful academics who were for the most part happy with academia. But many of the others very much weren’t.

14. Wittgenstein and Heidegger were continually unhappy in academia because they were intellectual mystics. The university was turning primarily into a scientific research space. This raised the question what can philosophy be? Old fashioned scholastic metaphysics seemed passe, already outdated by Kant’s time. By 1900 it was Kant’s conception of philosophy which was itself seeming passe.

15. At root, Wittgenstein and Heidegger were Kierkegaardians who saw philosophy as a way for each person to live existentially authentic lives. But what does that have to do with philosophy as understanding the world – of how the mind relates to the body, which form of government is most just or whether numbers exist in a Platonic realm?

16. There was a basic rupture that European intellectuals were experiencing in the early 1900s between a dehumanized objective reality (a modern physics in which even tables and chairs seemed strange and illusory) and a subjectivized spirituality (a hyper individualistic sense of human meaning which cut off people from each other spiritually). And all this in the midst of two world wars, technology rapidly changing society and forms of communication, and questions about the viability of liberal democracy. Sounds familiar.

17. As comes out in Eilenberger’s and Bakewell’s books, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, de Beauvoiur, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin – all these thinkers were effectively trying to find a middle ground between a reductive scientism and a isolationist subjectivism without falling back into an outdated traditionalism. Well, what the heck does that look like?

18. Well, what that can look like is the story of 20th century European philosophy. I myself feel most drawn to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, for they bring out really well how intellectual mysticism is hard to place in modern society. They both had as much recognition as is possible for academic philosophers, and yet they both were deeply alienated from academia and felt like outsiders – and often wanting to be outsiders and to leave academia behind.

19. But more generally, I identified with all the philosophers in the books, those who were academics and those who were not. For ultimately, for an intellectual, even for an intellectual mystic, the question isn’t which one philosopher or philosophy is right. It is a matter of appreciating the field of philosophy. “Field” not as in the discipline or the profession of philosophy. But “field” as in the conceptual space of the questions, the debates, the choices and the possibilities for philosophy and for human life more generally.

20. The intellectual mystic loses himself into that field. From the ego perspective of his wants and his day to day identities, the world and its possibilities seem limited, constraining – that is the source of the pain and the anguish. But as he steps into the field of the broader space of questions and possibilities, and his mind is able to see in each thought a whole possible world, he finds distance from his limited, ego perspective.

21. Each thought becomes like a star in the heavens, and thinking becomes like gazing at the unending stars on a clear, dark night.

Philosophy as a Group Activity

I became a philosophy major in college in my sophomore year, 25 years ago. Since that time my main experience of being a philosopher has been mainly a ghostly one. I have generally felt unseen as a thinker. And even felt unsure myself what it is to be seen as a thinker.

In academia this was due to its eurocentrism. To my having to hide, or being unable to know how to express, my interests in philosophy that derive from my Indian background.

But I have come to realize something: the root of my feeling unseen even in academia is not due to just how academic philosophy is. To the contrary, how I reacted to academic philosophy was due to a deeper sense of being unseen, which often led me to not trying to express myself better in academia.

This deeper sense of being unseen is due to the fact that, other than my brother and a couple of other family members, I would say that no one in my family really had or even still has much of an idea what it meant for me to be a philosophy student or professor. They knew the names of the places I was at – Cornell, Harvard, Bryn Mawr – but beyond the prestigious names, they had no idea what I was doing there.

I don’t just mean they didn’t know what my thesis was on or what philosophy of mind was. I mean something more basic: they had no concept of philosophy as a domain of knowledge. For the most part my family is very middle class, focused on family and jobs, and enjoying days off from the job with family. And the jobs in question were clearly understood domains: doctor, lawyer, engineer, finance and so on. Of course they could envision other jobs even if we might not really pursue them: actors, musicians, athletes, journalists, etc. Beyond the realm of jobs and family was perhaps the domain of politics and beyond that religion. Philosophy as a domain that is not a doctor, lawyer type job but is also not religion – that is pretty much unheard of.

It occurred to me a few days ago, with some shock but also with a sense of peace, that this was true of my father as well. I often was angry with him back then for why, when he was such a good philosopher and also when I saw him as a mentor, he didn’t engage with my philosophy education in college. I assumed it was because he was convinced it was wrong and limited, too focused on the mind rather than transcending the mind. But it never dawned on me that it could be because he didn’t know what I am studying. Or better put: he didn’t know the kind of philosopher I was becoming through my education.

I don’t just mean that he didn’t know Plato or Descartes, etc. I mean something much more basic: he didn’t know philosophy as, I will put it, a group activity.

Philosophy for my father had two modes: as a solitary activity, where he is thinking, sitting, chanting and so on by himself, or as a one on one activity, where there is a teacher and a student, or a proponent and a challenger, etc. My interactions with him obviously fit into the one on one activity category, with me at times as a student, at other times as a challenger and so on.

But philosophy as practiced in academia is mainly neither of these modes. It is a fundamentally group activity – of many people, as intellectual peers, talking to each other in all sorts of cross cutting ways. The primary domain of philosophy in this sense is not an individual or even two people talking, but a field of questions and possible answers, which are being explored by a wide array of people, with a wide array of interests and focuses.

If philosophy as a solitary activity is like meditating by oneself, and philosophy as one on one is like having a conversation with another person, philosophy as a group activity is like talking at a party. You might be taking to four or five people at one moment, then later talking to everyone by giving a toast, and then to three people, etc – moving back and forth between different dialogues with different groups, with different focuses, but nonetheless with a certain sense of the coherence and overall moods and the unifying threads of the party. Those who are particularly good at this kind of group activity are those who are able to weave a coherence in their conversations even as they are able to engage in the diversity of modes of conversation at the party.

For a long time, since the beginning of college, I drew the contrast between my father and my professors as that of Indian philosophy vs Western philosophy. I now think this is not tracking the main difference between my father and my professors.

The main difference is that my father had no idea how to do philosophy as a group activity. That wasn’t the template of philosophy he was used to. It’s like someone who is used to playing basketball one on one feeling uneasy playing in a five-on-five game. The moves one can make, the coordination with others and what it means to dominate or assert one’s will on the game – these are all different depending on whether it is a game involving two people or ten people.

This is not an Indian vs Western philosophy issue. Philosophy as a group activity has a long history in India, just as it does in the West. Nor is it an issue of non-academic vs academic philosophy. As in the Hellenistic period or during the European Enlightenment, there has often been philosophy as a group activity which involves nonacademics as well as academics. Nor is it even an issue of spiritual vs non-spiritual philosophy. Spiritual philosophers can often engage in philosophy as a group activity – a collective debate – as much as more scientific minded philosophers.

The constant dissonance I had when going back and forth between talking to my father and my professors was that both were treating philosophy as one main kind of activity, and yet both had very different paradigms of what that the one activity consisted in.

With my father it was not philosophy as solitary activity, since obviously it was the two of us talking. But it very much was not a group activity in that the focus of the conversation was always my father, with me or my brother or mother, or all of us, being questioners or challengers of my father’s worldview. This meant that my father’s view of philosophy set the parameters of the conversation, and discussion meant exploring the domain within those parameters. As it happened, my father’s interests were very broad – from chimpanzee consciousness to the relation of the Gita to modern physics – and so there was an unending variety of things to explore in talking to him. But it fundamentally took place as an exploration of his perspective. With even a blurring of the lines between his perspective and the perspective of philosophy as such. As if when he was speaking philosophically, he was speaking as philosophy, as the Truth or as Inquiry as such.

When I was talking to my father, it was a bit like how a graduate student might relate to his dissertation advisor. But with the crucial difference that while in grad school one might see philosophy on the model of a one on one conversation with one’s advisor, pretty soon one has to grow beyond this to embrace the basically group activity form of philosophy. After grad school one has to orient not just to one on one conversations, but learn how to speak to the multitude of conversations happening in the broader group of the profession.

I see now that this was a main struggle I had when I became a professor and why I didn’t publish anything.

There is no one activity called philosophizing. Just as there is no one activity called playing a game. Sometimes the games one plays are solitary, like solitaire or sudoku, etc. Sometimes they are two person games, like single’s tennis or chess, etc. And sometimes they are group games, like baseball or cricket, etc. .

Similarly, sometimes philosophy means a deeply personal activity, with the focus on being with one’s consciousness or deep self-reflection. At other times, philosophy can mean a two person activity, as with a conversation between two friends, or two brothers, or a teacher and a student. And yet at other times, it can mean a group activity, as when one gives a lecture or is engaged in a group discussion.

Philosophy publishing as an academic is a particular combination of all these modes of philosophy. Writing a philosophy article or a book is often a solitary activity. Which can feel like it is an extended one on one dialogue, especially if one is engaging with a particular philosopher in one’s writing. And yet by the very nature of publishing, it is also a group activity – an entry into an extended, group dialogue happening in the profession, but also in society more broadly, and even through the centuries.

In my time in academia I continually struggled to find my voice as a writer, often feeling alienated from what I wrote a few months after I wrote it. As a brown man with interests in non-Western philosophy, the Eurocentrism of the profession was a ready to hand explanation for this continual struggle on my part.

But there has always been a huge limitation with this explanation of Eurocentism as the main problem: I was alienated not just from my colleagues in academic philosophy, but philosophically from my family as well, and indeed even from my father as a philosopher. The form of the alienation I had with my advisors felt very similar to the form of alienation I had with my father. How can this be if Eurocentrism is the main problem?

One way to shoe horn Eurocentrism as the problem is to say that I was alienated from my father’s philosophy because of my European philosophy education. That the white supremacist undertones of modern European philosophy made it hard for me to engage with the ancient, brown philosophy of my father. I suspect this is how my struggles between my father and my professors might be interpreted through a social justice warrior mindset, which sees white supremacy as the deep underlying problem of most every social struggle. For some years I myself was drawn to this narrative.

But there is one clear problem with this explanation: I was starting to be alienated from my father’s philosophy by the time I went to college. He and I were already disagreeing about what form my philosophical life can take. My assertion that I might want to be a monk or to work in McDonalds were my attempt to carve my identity as a philosophy outside of the one on one philosophy framework of my father which I was starting to find suffocating. I already started to sense a difference between my father as a philosopher and other brown and black philosophers who I started to admire: Shankara, Aurobindo, Malcolm X. These three had a public dimension to their identity as philosophers which my father lacked. Even more pertinent than the publicness as such, was what it meant about the mode of philosophy they were engaging in: it was a group activity, beyond two people.

Just within a year of discovering philosophy, I was already hungering for philosophy as a group activity. I was drawn, as it were, not to the one on one basketball games which was my father’s preferred mode, but was looking to the basketball stars, from the past and the present, who thrived in five on five games.

I think even to the very end of his life my father never really understood the appeal or the particular contours of philosophy as a group activity. In his last years he focused on writing a book, which grew out of philosophy conversations he was having with some family members. But even when he was talking to a room of five family members, or when he took on the voice of a writer, he was not really doing philosophy as a group activity in the sense of engaging with peers. He took the one on one format, and expanded the number of students or challengers he would take on. The model of philosophical discussion was like a guru talking to his students. But as a philosopher it was still only himself as the real peer.

I feel this gives his book, Knowing One’s Own Self, a particular solipsistic energy. It is like a master solitaire player giving his vision for how to play solitaire. There is in the book no reference to other philosophers, Indian or otherwise. It is a book written by one person (the author) seemingly addressed to one other person (the reader). Though the author uses a great many concepts which arise from Hindu philosophy, the author shows no awareness that these concepts might be foreign to his readers, or might be in need of defense as categories in relation to other frameworks the readers might be familiar with. In effect, the book is infused with Hindu supremacist undertones – taking certain categories of Hindu philosophy as universal.

It was exactly this Hindu supremacist undertones which I was starting to feel alienated from as a teenager. My father was certainly no Hindu supremacist in any political sense. He was a cosmopolitan, centrist-progressive. He had no problem disassociating himself from his Indian identity or even his Hindu identity, and to happily embrace America, modernity and a global unity of humankind. In this he was very similar to most academic philosophers I knew. He was no more a Hindu supremacist than they were white supremacists in the normal sense of those terms. Which is one reason the social justice warrior framework seems off – if we can’t mark a distinction between my father and a far right Hindu conservative, or between Bertrand Russell and David Duke, something has gone wrong.

And yet there is a sense in which my father was never able to step outside of his Hindu philosophical framework and truly engage with other frameworks. He would often claim that he could do it and that he had done it – that he was embracing the Hindu categories not because they were Hindu but simply because, after having read Russell and the Bible and the Koran and so forth, he had concluded that, as it happened, the Hindu framework was the right one after all. This was similar to how many academic philosophers say, with an earnest, straight face, that when they use the categories of Plato or Kant, they are not trying to be European, but are engaging with, what just happen to be, universal categories. Like most academic philosophers, my father never faced up to the essentially convenient feature of this way of thinking.

In this sense, my father’s book is similar to a great deal of academic philosophy. He meant to write a cosmopolitan book that anyone could read. The fact that he was using Hindu categories didn’t raise for him the question of how someone unfamiliar with those categories might engage with the text. He presumed that he could simply describe the categories so that anyone might pick them up and run with them, and see them as carving nature at its joints. I felt this was implausible, and that for the most part, for people unfamiliar with the Hindu categories, the text would be unenterable.

I was apt to think this in part because even as someone somewhat familiar with Hindu philosophical categories – after all I had been basically listening to some version of his book all my life – I still found those categories alien. Not alien as in weird or wrong. But alien as in: are these categories in fact universal?

That was the question I came to within two years of talking to my father, and as I was heading off to college. To me philosophy wasn’t simply a game with one other person. It was a game which had many players – some of whom were Indian (Shankara), some Hindu influenced but not quite Indian (the Mother), some European (Russell), some African-American (Malcom X) and so on. For my 18 year old self, philosophy was a group activity with people from around the world trying to figure out how to speak to each other in a mutually comprehensible way.

And this group activity was fundamental even to my doing philosophy as a solitary activity, because I myself was a mixed person. Defined not by separable identities of Indian, American, African-American, European, Chinese, etc – but defined by heroes and role models of philosophers from a great variety of countries, religions and various forms of humanism.

This was exactly the reality my 15 year old self was struggling with: there was no root identity I could easily fall back on. When I was at school, which aspect of myself do I present as myself: the part of me who is Indian like my father, or the part who idolized Joe Montana, or the part who was mesmerized by Malcolm X’s autobiography when I read it in class, or the part who was drawn to the global consciousness of the Mother (a child of a Turkish Jewish father and an Egyptian Jewish mother, who grew up in France, had occult experiences as a child, lived in Japan for a time and lived most of her adult life in India)?

When I discovered academic philosophy in college, I was drawn fundamentally to it as philosophy as a group activity. I assumed, uncritically, that philosophy as a group activity meant philosophy as a global activity – for that is how I experienced philosophy as group activity in my own mind when I was becoming alienated from my father’s framework. It was only gradually that I realized that in my classrooms philosophy as a group activity meant still a mainly Eurocentric activity. That who was treated as the heroes of the group was still in 2000, as it was in 1900, mainly European thinkers.

The Eurocentrism was evident very quickly in college. And yet I stayed because I was drawn to philosophy as a group activity. If I left academia or I switched out of being a philosophy major, what mode of philosophy could I have? Back to the one on one conversation with my father? Or to fantasies of group philosophy as a monk?

No matter how much I resented and was alienated from my classrooms, I was also continually learning and growing as a philosopher in those very classes and I knew it. I could feel the growth. I could feel that through my education I was learning how to do philosophy as a group activity – of how to engage with philosophers not just as gurus or father figures, but as in principle peers. Of how to relate not just to my teachers and colleagues as peers, but how to relate to Russell, Malcolm X, Shankara and the Mother as peers. That though most of these thinkers were not taught in my classrooms, and indeed were not seen as philosophers, what I was learning was nonetheless helping me relate better philosophically with the the group I identified with.

When I finally did decide to leave academia, it was because I felt I got what I wanted out of it. That I had learnt enough of the basics of philosophy as a group activity that I didn’t have to be an academic to continue doing philosophy as a group activity. That I had internalized enough of the mode of doing philosophy as a group activity that I could try to do it in my own way, unconstrained by the fossilized Eurocentrism of my education.

Thus leaving academia was for me very much an extension of my academic education. Even as I was leaving, I was very aware that without my education I would not have been able to conceive of philosophy as a group activity outside of academia. That I was taking something which I happened to learn inside academia, albeit in a Eurocentric context, and was hoping to extend it outside of academia into the more pluralistic society we were becoming.

Just as my anger at and disappointments with my father were always colored with gratitude for my luck in having such a philosopher as my father, so too my anger at and disappointments with academic philosophy were colored with gratitude for my luck in being able to study philosophy for fifteen years in academia. For me the hurt and the gratitude were two, inseparable sides of the same coin – and so which set me apart from adopting either a conservative defense of academic philosophy or a dismissive rejection of the academic philosophy of the pre-woke years.

Ironically, leaving academia made it easier in one way to find this balance. Freed of having to deal in a day to day way with either the older, Eurocentric habits or the newer pressures of the woke transformations of the discipline, I could step back and over the years let both the hurt and the gratitude find and be with each other.

The challenge outside academia was keeping alive my sense of philosophy as a group activity. This is where blogging has been essential for me. But even with blogging the question has been to what extent people unfamiliar with academic philosophy could even see what I was doing as a group activity relevant to them.

In the past decade I have sometimes shared my blog with some family members, and was hurt when it was met with mainly blank stares. Or just silence and not responding to my emails in which I shared what I wrote. This was from people who clearly loved me. And yet they seemed strangely uninterested in what was one of the biggest events of my life – leaving academia. They wanted to continue to be close to me as family members, while completely ignoring the main event I was focused on in my life.

There was no “Hey, I don’t follow what you are writing, but it seems important to you – good luck!” There was instead only mute incomprehension, mixed with puzzlement of why I was still torturing myself thinking about academic philosophy even after I left it. Mostly my broader family didn’t seem to want to think about it. Like they had difficulty even acknowledging this side of me.

It only slowly occurred to me recently that this was because most of my family never knew what I was doing even when I was an academic. Their sense for philosophy is at most as something solitary or as something they engage in as listeners to gurus. Philosophy as a group activity is in which they are peers is for them utterly unknown. In complaining to my family members about my leaving academia I was like a person complaining about no longer being an astronaut to people who haven’t seen a plane. How would someone who doesn’t see the possibility of air travel show sympathy for someone who feels they lost out on going to the moon?

My family is very well educated, with people who are doctors, engineers, lawyers, in finance. Getting graduate degrees of one kind or another is the norm. In that sense my family members are very familiar with their particular domains as consisting of specialized group activities. That there is a way that doctors talk as doctors as a group, or engineers, etc.

But to the extent that they think of philosophy, it is at most as a solitary activity- something akin to cultivating a peaceful mind, or a devout sensibility. It is between them and their mind – or between them and God. They don’t see it so much as a matter of questions to explore, as learning a practice and implementing it. And if it goes beyond a solitary activity, then the model is mostly that of a one on one conversation of listening to a guru, or, what is just a variant of the same theme, of being in a group of people listening to a guru.

My family members who are religious often don’t see what there is for them to do philosophically as individuals other than put in practice what the Hindu tradition or their favor guru teaches. For them from the outset there is no concept of them engaging philosophically as peers with other philosophers, for a philosopher is for them by definition someone who is not their peer – someone who is enlightened, which they feel they most certainly are not.

And my family members who are not religious often see their main philosophical act as an individual as that of rejecting religion and so embracing whole heartedly a scientific perspective. Once this liberating act is achieved, or as it is continually reaffirmed, there is nothing more to do philosophically than to get on with living life in a rational way as deemed by science and modern progress.

So for my religious family members their own Hindu philosophical framework never became an object of inquiry, as something to reflect upon in order to possibly reject or amend. And for my atheist family members, reflecting on the Hindu philosophical framework amounted simply to rejecting it – so much so that once the fatal freedom from religion had been achieved, there were no more philosophical questions to explore.

I loved academic philosophy because it opened for me philosophy as a group activity beyond these two extremes. I already got from my father that one could reflect on philosophical frameworks without getting outside of philosophy altogether – that being critical of our family’s religious frameworks wasn’t the end of philosophy, but just the beginning. And in that process one might rediscover deeper, more subtle meanings of that religious framework itself, often invisible to most religious people and even to most atheists. My father thus introduced to me to the idea of continual philosophy – a mode of reflecting living which never ends, but only grows deeper and subtler the more one pursues it.

But the cost of engaging in that form of philosophy with my father was that it was ultimately at most a two person game. Academic philosophy introduced me to what such a continual philosophy can look like as a group activity. But in academic philosophy the ideal of philosophy as a group activity was falling well short of the reality of how it was practiced. In practice, due to historical conditions of the last few centuries, it was not a group activity open to all people, but which often unwittingly privileged certain groups.

So what would a more inclusive, more globally minded, diverse group activity of philosophy look like? It is a question not just for academics, but for all people.

My 15 Year Old Self

A recent conversation with a friend about my childhood led me to think about what my teenage self prior to his interest in philosophy was like. I was drawn to philosophical reflection when I was 16. So what was my 15 year old self like?

As I sat with this question, I tried to sit with what a normal weekday was like for him.

He would get up at 7am, eat breakfast while watching morning cartoons and head off to school at 8. School felt for the most part like an alien land socially. The main themes of fellow students had no real resonance for him: dating, being on sports teams, talking about music and movies, taking about other kids, complaining about parents, etc. The social world of high school felt like a land he was transported to every week day from 8am to 3pm, and which he saw mainly with detached puzzlement. After school, he would come home to watch tv or movies, or play video games, or lie in bed to listen to sports radio shows – and do homework somewhere in that time. Around 6 his parents would come home, and for the next four to five hours is when life made sense to him. He was part of a physical and social environment which felt real and not just like a land he was transported to. With his parents he would talk about the extended family, help with chores and they would all watch American sitcoms or PBS shows or Indian movies. Around 11 he would go to sleep, for the process to begin again the next day.

As I sit with this now, there is one thing which jumps out to me: that 15 year old had little to no sense of what adult life outside of his family meant. Beyond the adults in his family, and the teachers at school, the main adults he was aware of were ones on tv or in movies or on the radio. He hardly ever saw his parents at their work. Nor see his parents talking with neighbors or friends – for the most part, his parents interactions outside of work were with other family members. He and his parents hardly ever went to restaurants or to the movies or to sporting events or to art museums. Like many immigrant families perhaps, his family treated America socially mainly as a backdrop to spending their spare time (non work time) with family members with whom they could relive and continue habits from the old country.

My 15 year old’s sense of being an adult in America, and so a sense for what kind of an adult he could become, came almost entirely from tv, movies and sports. Which is to say: none of those were remotely any adult life that he could imagine inhabiting. Would his life be like Al Bundy from Married with Children, or like Bill Cosby from The Cosby Show or Homer from The Simpsons? Where in these white or black or cartoon lives would he find some semblance of his actual possible future? Perhaps then movies like The Terminator or The Godfather or Taxi Driver or Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally? The gulf between these movies and his family life was laughably immense. So then perhaps his life might like the sports heroes he has like Joe Montana or Michael Jordan or Darryl Strawberry? But how could his adult life be like theirs when he couldn’t even play on his school teams or share in that comradarie with his classmates?

So my 15 year old self mainly immersed himself in video games and movies and sports on tv – as fantasy realities in which, being fantasies in any case, he felt he could belong.

What then of the adults in his family? Were they not potential models for his adult self? Unlikely. For just like with his parents, he only saw other adults in his family in family contexts. Of course he knew these adults had jobs in the outside American world, but that was mired in a haze. And besides it felt to him like the adults in his family were probably transported into a magical outside world for work, which had little connection to our home life, just the way in which he was transported when he went to school.

Hence my 15 year old self had an extensive blindspot about his future. When he envisioned himself as an adult, what he sensed was a kind of blankness. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t connect his home life to American life. It’s that he had little to no palpable, lived, embodied sense for being an adult in America. Or in India – which felt equally foreign to him now. So the very concept of adulthood was like a dream that he knows he will enter as he grows older, but which as a dream, he has no frim sense for any of its contours or possibilities.

His family often told him that they immigrated to America so he could have a better future, go to college and have a good life. How ironic that it was that very immigration which confused for him the sense of his future and rendered it a blindspot.

This sheds a new light for me on how and why that 15 year boy discovered philosophy. And in particular why his father played such a big role in his mind.

For that 15 year old his father as a philosopher was the main adult life outside of the family he could envision for himself. American adulthood was covered in a haze. So too was Indian adulthood. The adulthood of the adults in his family were too tied up with family roles for them to be models for adulthood out in the broader world. That is, he saw his uncles and aunts and grandparents, and his older cousins and even his parents and brother so entirely in the mode of family that he couldn’t see them as adults in their own right making their way in a common adult world which included Indians, Americans, Indian-Americans, African-Americans, British, etc.

When his father showed himself as a philosopher – as a cosmopolitan thinker attempting to illuminate a global, unifying consciousness – the 15 year old self rushed head long into this identity with all the energy of a pent up spring. Here was an adult identity which felt like a real possibility for himself. One in which he could see a growth for himself beyond his family identity and past his teen years.

But surely his father wasn’t the only such adult in the world. That is incoherent. If his father as a philosopher was a kind which he could grow into as well, it must be a kind open to adults in general, and which can be defined in a broader way than just as the identity of his father.

His father’s main self definition of himself as a philosopher was as an advaitin – a proponent of advaita vedanta. It was his own particular brand of this, but nonetheless it was a kind he clearly shared with others. On his father’s view, it went back to the Upanishads and Gita – but those texts were not associated with any particular authors, and so there was nothing in the 15 year old could hold onto. Instead his mind focused on Shankara, the eight century philosopher and monk who was seen as the main proponent of advaita vedanta. And as it happened, there was in our home a dvd of a biographical movie of Shankara which came out in the 80s, which the 15 year old saw countless times.

8th century India and late 20th century America may be poles apart, but for the 15 year old – as for many people looking to the past for a vision of themselves in the splintered present – Shankara felt like a live model for his own growth into adulthood. Unlike most of his family members, here was an identity which aimed to speak for humanity, not just for or about Indian culture. And unlike the American identities he saw on television, here was an identity which grew out of his home identity – and which his parents were introducing him to. To imagine himself as a Joe Montana or a Bill Clinton would have ruptured his link with his family, since his family related to Montana or Clinton as the other – Americans doing their American things like football or politics.

Over the years I wondered what my life would have been like if my father didn’t discuss philosophy with me. If I had the opportunity to first experience life without philosophy thrust into my consciousness even before I ever really experienced life. This imagination was usually mixed with anger or disappointment with my father. But what these reflections show is that the 15 year old wasn’t a passive respondent to his father. The 15 year old – or at any rate his mind – actively sought out an archetype of adulthood that he saw within his father’s thoughts, and probably in a way that his father didn’t even realize, focused on it with all the intention of a drowning man seizing a life raft. For without this, what would that 15 year old grow into as an 18 year old or a 30 year old? Who would he be like as an Indian-American, merging his family way of life with the American way of life?

All along there was this difference between his father and him. His father had come into adulthood in India and discovering philosophy for him meant in part what kind of an Indian he wanted to be. A traditional Indian, a modern Indian, a mix of the two, and if so what did that mean? Vivekananda found the mix of ancient and modern through his monk identity, and in a similar way that was I think the appeal of being a monk to the 15 year old’s father. Not as an entry into traditional Indian life, but into a new modernizing India. And his father had gone through that phase and embraced his family identity to become a part of the rising middle class in India – as part of that to even move to America. So when his father was talking about philosophy with him, it was like the adult he already was.

What I suspect the 15 year old’s father failed to appreciate was that adulthood was itself a confusing thing for the 15 year old. The 15 year old, like most teenagers, couldn’t distinguish his confusions about adulthood from the confusions of the world more broadly. He, again like many teenagers, identified the world’s confusions with his own confusions of identity, as if the two were reflections of each other.

Inevitably this set the stage for the tensions between him and his father. As a teenager the 15 year old was putting his father as a philosopher in the kind of adult as Shankara. That was his way of understanding how he and his father were united in the kind instantiated by Shankara. For his father this meant mainly some ideas about the Self, but decidedly not a growth into the form of adulthood which Shankara actually had. His father had already gone through that phase of monkhood aspirations 30 years earlier and he was eager to pass on his own ideas to his son. But for his son Shankara was a model not just as an advaintin but also in terms of a social identity such as a monk. His father wanted to separate these two concepts. And yet advaitin as an abstract category felt socially unmoored to the 15 year old, for whom the monk identity felt more as a social opening.

It also set the stage for the tensions between the 18 year old philosophy major and academic philosophy. The 18 year old was drawn in part to being a philosophy major because he saw being a professor as a modern version of the Shankara monk identity. But just like his father had left behind the monk identity in his life path, so too had modernity left it behind in its growth in the past few centuries. At any rate, that was true of the identity of professors. Whereas in 1800 a philosophy professor in America was already different from a monk and even a priest, there was still some resonances between priests and professors back then. But with the rise of modern universities, philosophy professors had separated out the concept of philosophy from that of wisdom seekers, let alone the social identity of monks. Just as his father found the monk identity to no longer be a live identity for a middle class adult, so too his professors found it to no longer be a live identity for college professors. And for something like the same reason. While the 18 year old saw being a philosophy professor as monk-like in being different from the middle class life of his family, being a philosophy professor had become for most professors just another way of leading a middle class life.

Ultimately that 15 year old in due course, almost two decades later, had to break with his father and with academia in part to find his own way into the middle class life. Ironically, it was through breaking with his father and his professors that he was able to understand them better. And find his own path into adulthood.