It was ten years ago that I left academic philosophy. I still remember it clearly. It was January 31, 2011, a Monday. All through the weekend my wife and I had discussed my resigning from my job as a professor. Monday afternoon we drove around, talking, thinking, making sense to ourselves of the decision we had come to. At 2pm she dropped me in front of the philosophy department building. I went into my department chair’s office, had a conversation for half hour in which I told him I will be leaving and this will be my last semester. He was shocked, but perhaps not entirely. Afterwards I went into my office and cried. It felt painful but also good.
For the first five years after I left I was angry. I blogged a lot from that anger. Of how academic philosophy hadn’t worked for me, and why, who was to blame, and what can be done about it. Then slowly, thankfully the anger dissolved. The anger at the time felt righteous, but it was mainly grief for a life path that had run its course. I wanted to be angry at the system that I couldn’t be part of, but then again, I was the one who chose to leave. And I still didn’t regret it.
For the next five years I was trying to build on the ideas I still believed from when I was an academic. Thinkers that still mattered to me: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kant, Dewey, etc. Topics which were close to my heart, like what a global philosophy curriculum might be like, how Indian and Western philosophy might be brought together and so on. Pursuing ideas which built on the expertise I felt I had gained in my 13 years in academic philosophy as a student, and 3 years as a professor. So that it wouldn’t disappear into the air.
Now I realize I am forgetting a great deal of that philosophy I learnt. Forgetting not just this or that argument, or what this or that text said. But forgetting in a more basic sense: not seeing the world through the lens of those texts and arguments. I have tried from time to time picking up a text of Plato or Descartes or Wittgenstein. I know what is being said, I can sense what it will be like if I were to dive into those texts. But I have lost the desire to jump in. It’s not that central to how life appears to me now, or how I make sense of it.
I was recently watching some clips of philosophy talks by professors, some by my professors, some people I studied with, some people who I taught. And I had the same general feeling: it’s not my world, and it’s not that interesting to me. Not even interesting enough to feel I want to object or argue in opposition, or expand on it. I kind of relate to it the way I relate to my calculus textbook from high school – a relic from the past which is mainly not relevant to my present.
This is not unique to how I relate to academic texts. Since I was a teenager, discussing philosophy with my father, texts like The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads meant a great deal to me. Like entryways into the deepest mysteries of the world. I still feel that way about that in theory, just as in theory I still find Plato and Wittgenstein amazing philosophers. But practically, in a visceral sense, I am not as moved by The Gita and The Upanishads anymore. The truths they are speaking of seem pertinent to me not mainly through those texts, but just through my own consciousness.
It’s an interesting feeling. I am not sad I am forgetting these philosophical texts. Not sad or angry or distraught that the texts and institutions which were at the center of my life now feel secondary, like a dim, distant reality. I know of course that they – both texts like Plato’s Republic and The Gita – are vitally important to many people even now, in this very moment. But not so much to me. So much so that when I think about them, I almost can feel that beginner sense of wonder about them, as in: Hhmm, I wonder what those texts are about? I wonder if they have something I want? Except now I also think: Maybe they still have insights I can grasp, but…that’s ok. I don’t need that right now.
I am actually rather happy to be forgetting them. For I realize this is probably why I left academia in the first place. Not because I was angry about academia. Or because I wasn’t interested in it. But because it started to seem really interesting to me what my life and my consciousness would be like if, after 16 years of immersing myself professionally in texts like The Republic and personally in texts like The Gita, I then went over there, away from them, and saw the world fresh, with new sight. I was driven by a simple curiosity: What would that be like? And by a simple voice, pulsating within me, which said: it will be good for you and your understanding of the world and for your mode of being in the world.
In these past ten years I resisted this forgetting because it might render me without a platform. After all, if I forget Plato and Wittgenstein, and if I can’t speak to any mystical experiences inspired by The Gita, would or should anyone listen to me? Surely I have something! Just look at my cv, and look at how long I have been trying to live my life based on the wisdom of texts like The Gita or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! Surely my long dedication itself must warrant why people might listen to me! But how can any of that happen if Plato and the Meditations feel distant to me, as if I were once again mainly a beginner in thinking about them, and that too a beginner who doesn’t really think about them? If I was like a beginner who picks them up on a library shelf, flips the pages a little and puts them back and moves on to the magazine section?
And what if as I forget not only will no one listen to me, but my desire to speak and to be heard itself starts to fade? What if just like I don’t mind anymore not claiming to know what Plato or Wittgenstein were saying, I also don’t really mind not having a platform? What if when I write a blog post it is not a preliminary to a future project, but just that: writing a blog post in this moment, the way I drink a glass of water not for the thirst I will have tomorrow, but just for now and for no other reason?
That actually seems….nice.
I don’t remember, nor care to remember, anymore the finer details of Wittgenstein’s private language argument or what exactly was said in the fourth chapter of The Gita. But I do remember and still believe some of the beliefs I developed in the last twenty years. And high on that list of beliefs is this: there is more to life than what one believes, and definitely more to life than what one wants to argue for or get others to believe.
Believing, like trying and striving, is not an end in itself, but a background necessity of life. We can never stop believing and trying to improve our beliefs and actions. Just like we cannot stop eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. But a life focused mainly on eating and drinking and going to the bathroom is a limited life. Just as a life focused mainly on believing and convincing and trying harder is a limited life.
But without believing and striving and effort and convincing, how will we ever grow and improve? How will we ever address the pressing problems in our society? Won’t we stagnate if we don’t try to get just the right beliefs about morality and politics and mind and science, and spread those right beliefs so people aren’t confused? Without focusing on beliefs and what should be done, how will we change and transform?
Then again, what if what is holding back change is not having the wrong beliefs but being obsessed with beliefs and being unable to let go of that even for a few minutes? What if what is holding back transformation isn’t not trying to change but trying too hard to change, to push oneself and not let oneself just be? What if thinking has become so second nature to us that it is attending to the pauses between the thoughts which is new and hard and unusual for us? What if the change that needs to be happen isn’t mainly a change in beliefs or effort, but in allowing ourselves to grow in new ways, to leave behind what we have been holding onto for decades, thinking always “one day I will get there”, only to find that thought of the distant future has itself become a warm, comforting blanket?
Now I find the pauses between my thoughts as interesting as I used to find texts by Kant or Aurobindo. Maybe I am delusional. Maybe I only think this now because I am forgetting Kant and Aurobindo, Wittgenstein and Shankara. Maybe. Still, forgetting those texts as I am, I am not bothered by this possibility. There are other new, interesting things to explore and to delight in.