I am in an intellectual freefall. Cognitive structures which buttressed me for decades are crumbling and it feels like I am unable to latch onto anything firm or sturdy.
Is this a bad thing? For years I have been building and climbing up cognitive structures, feeling sure they were leading me to the goal of thought – the height of self consciousness and awareness. In the process it even started to seem a bit monotonous, as if miraculously I somehow knew the end goal already and there was only the leg work left to get there. Now the monotony is replaced by disorientation. The structures I was climbing up are starting to shake and I am losing my footing. The floor is getting woobly, the walls are peeling off. I am falling but also not just falling, and floating almost. Is there a firm place to get a footing anywhere? Or is this the new reality? Or was this always the reality and I am waking from a dream of stability?
Descartes in his First Meditation decides to question everything, wondering even if his whole life was a dream and if an evil demon was deceiving him. He claims he is not even sure 1+1=2, or if he has a body. This never got a grip on me. It seemed strange to me that one could decide to question everything. What can be the basis of the decision and for keeping to the decision if one doesn’t even know if one is awake or if other people exist? It was a brilliant rhetorical move by Descartes to find a way to set aside his scholastic education and put in its place a new worldview based on the new mechanical physics and its implications for the rest of knowledge. But as true doubting from the first person perspective it is as hokey as Socrates claiming to not know anything and yet overwhelming all his interlocutors. It is not really doubting, as much as it is playing off of a certain image of what doubting looks like, especially when we already know who the hero is and how he will emerge victorious in the end.
I am not choosing to question everything. It’s more like the cognitive ground on which I stand is shaking and the buildings I have erected, and which I took to be firm, are starting to tumble. It feels a bit like Truman from the movie The Truman Show realizing that the world he took to be real is actually an elaborate prop. But in my case, a prop not set up by others to deceive me, but set up by my own mind through the years and also set up socially through the centuries to feel like there is a stable ground to our existence as human beings.
Perhaps this is what it’s like when a religious person starts to lose his faith, or when an atheist starts to discover faith. Or when in romantic comedies the no-nonsense-love-is-an-illusion claiming hero starts to fall in love.
For me the attraction of philosophy was that it seemed to provide a common basis for our shared humanity. As if the consciousness of the sages or the questions of the philosopher united beyond our differences of culture, race, gender and class, and any other difference. That philosophy I knew and that I studied wasn’t just my idiosyncratic interest, or the idiosyncratic interests of my fellow philosophers or thinkers, but that it was in fact tracking the deeper unifying bonds of all of us as people.
There was a fabulous wish at the root of this vision. Just the things my father happened to know and pass on to me and just the things my teachers knew and could pass on to me and just the things which I came across and read – all that contingent set of beliefs, books, conversations and assumptions which were propelling my growth as a thinker and which would give me a voice in society was also, wonderfully and amazingly, just what the world really needs and is in fact an objective, unifying vision of the world.
It’s a fantastic possibility, which is so embedded within so much of our way of thinking and talking. Why assume that my life might be tracking anything about the structure of the world, or indeed of what it is like for most other people? What if my thinking is ultimately just that – my thinking, my way of making sense of things I have seen and what I imagine would be good for the world?
One might say, “Well, of course, Bharath! No one assumed your thinking is tracking something objectively true and amazing. You are just a doofus like most people in the world, puttering along from day to day. Did you actually think your consciousness and thoughts could be tracking something more?”
Yes, I did. Very much so. I assumed from when I was a teenager that whatever the Buddha or Socrates or Christ or Lao Tzu had, I could gain too. That I am no different in kind from them, that I am no less smart, no less dedicated to the Truth, no less capable than them. If they can speak for humanity, then well, so can I…at some point. That was the foundation stone of my cognitive universe. That they in fact do speak for our shared humanity, and that I can be like them at least in my inner consciousness, if not in outer recognition.
But now I am losing my grip on this foundation stone. It no longer seems so sturdy and so unshakable. It seems all too shakable, for here it is in my mind, shaking right now.
Why assume that the Buddha or Socrates or Christ can speak for all people? To something transcendent that links us all as people. They too might have been just doofuses putzing along. Wonderful doofuses. Admirable. Profound. Great. Awakened. Wise. Son of God. Yes! But am I thinking that because they somehow were like that, or because that is how others characterized them, after their deaths, creating an aura of transcendental reality that their followers needed to believe, just as I needed to believe it all these years?
It is tempting to think the great thinkers we remember and read had something called great thinkingness(!) that made them great thinkers. That this great thinkingness descended on them like a spirit entering a body, and that it was through this great thinkingness that they were able to do great things in the world, so that people could then see that these special people had this amazing great thinkingness within them, and that if only we were like them, it could spread to us.
I am starting to think this is nonsense. There is no such thing as great thinkingness. It’s a cognitive illusion. It is impossible to relate to the Buddha or Socrates or Christ as the particular people they were back then. Rather, the sense of them as having the great thinkingness is created by the fact that their name and ideas have been kept alive and glamourized and reified and glorified by ordinary people who definitely were oridnary doofuses just like me. Like me, they built up cognitive structures premised on the assumption of someone else’s great thinkingness, and which they felt they had to defend because their own sense of their goodness and capacity and the light within them was defined entirely through their ability to see the masters’ great thinkingness.
You might think this is obvious with religion. This kind of deification of the greats and thinking entirely in terms of that. But it is really all around us. For most people their perception of spiritual, non-religious thinkers like Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle is entirely permeated with reifying the great thinkingness within them, those who got it, and appreciating one’s own link to it through one’s appreciation of them as great thinkers glowing with their great thinkingness.
The same is often true in academia. Helping students to think for themselves often is equated with helping them to see the great thinkingness in the great philosophers and so understanding better what Socrates or Kant said is seen as the most lesser mortals like us can do to get close to the glow of great thinkingness.
But there is a trap here. If there is in fact a great thinkingness which shines in us like a gem, then in order to appreciate it within myself I have to let it shine from within myself, and not just seek to find it through the reflective glow of great thinkers. Cognitive change and transformation is cyclical and has seasons. It is not just a flat line from the starting point of ignorance to the finish line of appreciating Socrates’ genius. Yes, one has to go through such a change to appreciate Socrates. But if the aim is to not just appreciate Socrates but to let flower the light within oneself, then one has to also be open to the season of leaving Socrates behind, to see him as just a man who was striving like we all are. We can sense the light within ourselves reflected off the light in the greats. But conversely, to see the light within ourselves more clearly we need to see the greats themselves as not so different from us – not just in that they also ate and slept and got mad and sad, but even more, not so different from us in how they sought the light.
It is in appreciating the thorough ordinariness of the famous thinkers that they become our friends. Not masters on high, but really like our friends, fellow doofuses who let the structures of their mind crumble time and time again. When the great thinkers are reified as walking manifestations of great thinkingness, it’s because of a certain picture of achievement. If we think of achievement as building stable things, then when looking at Socrates or Christ or the Buddha we strain to see what is the great thing they built. We sense the greatness but can’t see what they built exactly. So the mind infers it as that they built invisible structures of the mind which are sturdier than the sturdiest physical buildings we can see. Driven by the picture of achievement as building, the mind looks for the hidden building within them that the great thinkers must have built, and identifies one’s own achievement with building such a grand hidden building within oneself.
At any rate, that is what my mind did. It sought to mimic the great thinkers and to imagine what they must have built deep within themselves, and to build that within myself. I built and built. Constantly. Energetically. With inspiration and with desperation. Afraid all the while that perhaps my cognitive buildings are mere shams and not like the great thinkers’ buildings which were, I imagined, unshakable. How strong their bricks must have been to never break down. How sturdy their walls that they never collapsed. How firm their ground that it never shook.
This whole way of thinking collapses if the picture of achievement is changed. What if the image of their unshakable buildings is because of the reification of their followers, who in their desperation to hold onto an ideal turned their teachers into ideals. And so missed in the process the very ordinary human achievement of the masters. An achievement not of building, but of letting fall. Not of creating invisible, magical, transcendent cognitive structures, but of not holding on to the normal, earthly cognitive structures which are constantly, like fruit, growing, becoming ripe, falling to the ground and disintegrating. An achievement not of creating buildings so sturdy that they never break down, but of making peace with their inevitable break down.
In free fall, as so much of what I took for granted starts to crumble and fade, I see also in free fall next to me Socrates, the Buddha and Christ. In dismay I ask them, “What, you also experienced free fall? Why would you need to?” To which they reply, “How could we not? The first few times we were in free fall, we kicked and screamed and resisted, thinking this is not how the great people before us achieved greatness! But as we were in free fall again and again, after each time we thought we had finally built something unshakable, we stopped fighting it and realized the free fall is the growth. Then free fall didn’t seem like a loss but as a new mode of being. Like a child who finally learns to swim, we simply learnt how to move in free fall. That looked magical to others and they seemed to assume we must be walking on air or over water. They said they are in awe of us and they too want to walk on air and over water! Usually before we could say much in reply, our ground would shake and we would be in free fall again and so we let it be and embraced the fall.”
As they speak, I look at them and look at myself and laugh. How simple it is indeed. It is the very simplicity which my mind struggles to accept. I remember that long before I wanted to build unshakable structures which would last forever and would mimic the masters, I had a much simpler wish – to fly, to be like a bird in the skies, gliding with open wings, unrestrained by any structure, seeing the world just for the sake of seeing it. And then I think, “Am I falling or flying?”