Openness Without Relativism

In the last post I said I prefer speaking just as a person over speaking with authority about philosophy. And I said when one speaks just as a person one is speaking “like one of the multitudes, one in the crowd. [The] aim is for us to speak as equals, as two people sharing our observations. Nothing more.”

Is this a matter of temperament or personality? Do you have an aversion to philosophical authority the way a person might not like carrots?

No. I think I have the desire to be seen as an authority as much as others do. Moreover, in my life I have often looked up to philosophical authority and put myself in the position of the earnest student. So both from the perspective of the speaker and the listener, by personality I have been very much drawn to philosophical authority.

My preference to speak just as a person goes against strong elements of my personality. That’s why its challenging – and also exciting, laced with a sense of personal growth and an expansion of horizons.

If it is not just a matter of your temperament, are you saying that philosophy professors are wrong to speak from authority?

Yes and no.

Let me start with “no”. In one very clear sense, the authority philosophy professors have comes from those wanting to listen to them as authorities. Lots of people, inside and outside academia, clearly enjoy and benefit from listening to philosophy professors as authorities on philosophy. That is a way they learn and grow. When there is genuine learning and growing, that is justification enough for philosophy professors to speak from authority. If someone is enjoying speaking as a professor and another person is enjoying engaging with that professor as an authority, it’s silly for a third person to say, “That’s all bullshit.”

In fact, speaking just a person means precisely not making these kinds of judgments about what benefits others. It is to treat people not as defined by their roles (professor, student, politician, parent, etc.) but that for every person there is, behind the roles, an individual trying to make sense of their life as best as they can. It is a contingent fact that the structures which didn’t work for me work for many others, and in some cases work enough for them to stay in and try to change it from within. One of the reasons I like speaking just a person is because it helps me remember this.

Still, in another sense my answer is “yes”. I don’t listen to philosophy professors as authorities anymore. I see them as people pursuing their interests embedded in structures which help others listen to them as authorities.

In this regard, I think of them like priests. What gives priests authority to speak about religion? Not from God as an outside force which underlies the priests’ authority over everyone. Priests don’t have any authority over me unless I find their speaking from authority helpful to me. If you find religious texts important for your life and you find the way priests talk about them helpful, of course it makes sense to listen to them as authorities. But if you don’t, you don’t. Similarly, if you certain philosophical texts interesting and find it helpful to listen to people who spend talking about them as their jobs, great. But there is no claim of authority underwritten by something other than the listeners who find it interesting such as “the philosophical tradition”, “the nature of philosophy”, “the rational mind” or “thinking clearly”.

I gave all those kind of justifications for academic philosophy when I was in academia. A good deal of my tension back then was I didn’t entirely believe it even back then.

So are you now a relativist who thinks any philosophical view is as good as any other?

No. I have beliefs about many things: religion, philosophy, mind, politics, future of humanity, etc. Part of having these beliefs, as with any beliefs, is believing them to be true. Or at any rate trying to justify one’s sense that they are true. I also believe some texts are better to trying to understand these topics than other texts, some authors more interesting and more incisive than others.

What I don’t believe is that the contemporary academic philosophy structures are either necessary or the best way to channel and engage with philosophical texts. Not only because, say, American philosophy departments for the most part ignore other traditions. But because they are misinterpreting even Western authors like Plato and Descartes.

Western academic philosophers like to trace their origins to Socrates. But in a sense modern academic philosophy is only 250 years old. Even modern philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Hume predate it. The first great modern philosophy professor was Kant (1724-1804). Current philosophy departments are the result of at least four forces which came together in the second half of the 1700s in Europe:

1) the rise of modern universities linked to the industrial and political revolutions of the time;
2) universities moving theology from the center of the intellectual life to make room for the scientific revolution;
3) philosophy departments as the self-conscious expression of the best of human civilization, encapsulated in a hierarchy with European philosophy as the most rational; and
4) philosophy departments as the spaces which navigate in between religion and science by investigating the nature of knowledge.

The academic philosophy of Kant and Hegel which brought together (1)-(4) was a new transformation in its time. But it has now become antiquated.

(1) is being challenged as we move from the industrial age to the information age, and as that has implications for our political structures. So there is no reason to think the way Kant was a philosophy professor has to apply to our time. (2) is a done deal. There is no need anymore to justify the scientific revolution. The technological revolutions of the last 300 years justify it on their own, and even if they need some justification, that it is incompatible with parts of religion is low on the list of priorities. (3) is hard to believe shorn of the white supremacy which Kant and Hegel believed.

(4) is now the main remaining link between academic philosophy in Kant’s time and now. But (4) was really buttressed by (1)-(3). In Kant’s time religious, scientific, political, economic and colonial institutions were all being rethought. Kant’s great institutional achievement was to connect all these changes to philosophical questions and so to mark philosophy departments as the place in the university where meta-reflection on these changes happen. It was a great rethinking of philosophy and its tradition to make it fit into the new academic structures and the rapidly changing society of that time.

I respect Kant’s achievement. I just believe we need to do that now in our own time in our own way. Our societal changes are no less radical than those in Kant’s time, and our changes are overturning the very institutions set up in Kant’s time. It’s not obvious what the future of work will be, or the way people communicate, or share information, or how colleges more generally will be transformed. It is strange to think that in the midst of these huge changes, academic philosophy nonetheless can retain its identity from Kant’s time.

If philosophy professors don’t have authority grounded in the nature and history of philosophy, isn’t there going to be chaos in terms of philosophical thinking? How would we then know what distinguishes philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy?

Chaos is baked into human life. Every generation feels big, unprecedented changes are happening, because they are. Humans are defined by their cultural artifacts like tools, institutions, stories, identities and books, and humans are also defined by their continually changing those artifacts to their times. Culturally, humans are continually at sea, riding out the storms of transformation. This has been our fate at least since the dawn of mass civilizations and mass migrations around 6,000 years ago, and even before that from hunter gatherer life to agriculture or nomadic life.

The best way to deal with the chaos is to face up to it rather than to seek comfort in an imagined stability, either of a glorious past or a future utopia. To the extent one makes peace with the chaos, one can then ride with it, and that is the kind of stability and control we can genuinely have. But if we aim only for a stability that denies the chaos, like with any denial, it only pulls us deeper into the choas even as we live into a fantasy.

I certainly see this in current academic philosophy, which is being pulled apart by two fantasies. On the one side are those who miss the stability of the past decades, when it seemed like philosophy had a set curriculum and pantheon and method and topics, and it seemed like something which stretched from Plato to Quine (or whoever is their favorite contemporary). Of course, there was no such one thing stretching over 2,500 years and which neatly fits into philosophy departments. It was the Kantian and Hegelian achievement to create such a story which has been dominant in the West for the last 200 years. But from within the perspective of one who believes this story to be reality, the concerns raised by diversity feel like the barbarians attacking civilization. If they overtake civilization, all will be in ruins and all standards will be lost.

On the other side are those who want to embrace the diversity issues, challenge the status quo and the past and do all this from within academic philosophy. Here the fantasy is not of the past, but of the future. Can diversity be embraced in all its forms – comparative philosophy, feminism, critical race theory and so on, including deep challenges to what counts as philosophy and who counts as a philosopher, and even blurring the boundaries of inside and outside academia, and the boundaries between philosophy, politics, literature, science and religion – and yet package all that within the academic structures of intro courses, graduate education and tenure review, all the while also battling institutional problems like graduate students not getting jobs, and inequalities such as between tenure-track and adjunct professors? To me this seems like pouring – indeed, forcing – new wine into old wineskins. A valiant effort for those who want to try it, but, it seems to me, as doomed as trying to contain a hurricane in a room.

This division shows that already even within academic philosophy there is no agreed upon way to distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy, and good philosophy from bad philosophy. Accepting that philosophical authority isn’t grounded in the nature or history of philosophy isn’t a way of creating chaos. It is a way of appreciating the chaotic situation within which we already exist.

For some people Quine is an exemplar of a philosopher. For others it is Fanon. For yet others it is the Dalai Lama. Who is right? I think it’s the wrong question. Philosophy professors are forced to ask the question because of the practical issues they face as academics of determining what intro classes are taught, who gets hired and who gets the chaired professorships. The practical life of academia forces one to ask those questions – and so those questions become the trigger points in the profession, as if addressing the philosophical issues and the professional issues are the same.

If our aim is to deal with the broader chaotic situations of our lives and society in the 21st century, why should we think the way philosophy professors settle their chaotic internal institutional questions of advancement is the best, or even a good, way to do that? The world is already chaotic enough without forcing oneself to see it through the lens of an institution created 250 years ago. Sometimes it is better to step out and see things afresh.

Are you then siding with the conservative state governments who are trying to eliminate philosophy departments?

I don’t agree with their reasons for eliminating philosophy departments. They don’t want philosophy departments to be diverse. I left academic philosophy because it wasn’t diverse enough.

But since I think philosophy professors can speak with authority only insofar as people want to listen to them, I don’t object if people don’t want to listen to them. I think many conservatives, including religious conservatives, are justified to feel – as I did – that academic philosophers are not trying to speak to them. I can understand their annoyance that academic philosophers are trying to use the majesty or the essence or the history of philosophy as the justification for their authority rather than to try to gain the authority directly from the listeners’ interest.

Of course, I don’t agree with religious conservatives that instead of academic philosophy we need to go back to the church as the space of true authority. I don’t believe there is any such thing as the real institution of authority. There are only people trying to understand the world and listening to people who they find helpful. The trouble comes when we want to institutionally force others to find helpful what we find helpful.

In America the proximate cause of philosophy departments dwindling in the coming decades might be conservative governments. But we need to put it in the broader context of the internal tensions within academic philosophy and the way the Kantian model is becoming outdated. I support philosophy departments against conservative hit jobs, but I don’t thereby believe philosophy departments are essential for the future.

Current philosophy departments are like scholastic philosophy schools in the middle ages. The scholastic schoolmen experienced the new fangled philosophies of non-academics like Descartes and Spinoza as radical relativists overthrowing all standards. Of course, that’s not what Descartes and Spinoza were doing. They were rethinking philosophy and its possibilities without worrying about the internal institutional pressures faced by scholastics. By stepping out into the new, they were trying to meet the new situations and chaos head on without the weight of past institutions. I think that is a good spirit for our time as well.

Two Ways of Speaking

In a comment in the last post, I made a distinction between being a professional philosopher and an amateur philosopher, and said I am now an amateur philosopher. And that I am happy to be so. But what is the distinction I am making here? Upon reflection, I think professional vs amateur is not getting at the distinction I want exactly. So let me try again.

At its root the distinction I am interested in concerns the manner in which one speaks. One way of speaking is as a representative of a body of knowledge. So that when one speaks, one intends to speak with the weight of the authority of that body of knowledge behind one. So when I go to see a doctor and he talks to me, he is speaking as a doctor, not simply as a person who has medical opinions. The doctor takes himself to know things I don’t know, and for which he expects me to be deferential as someone who doesn’t have his knowledge. Patients at times might balk at this, saying “Who are you to tell me?” This is akin to a student balking at a professor saying, “Why do you get to judge me?” The answer is all too obvious, written into the structure of a doctor’s office or a lecture hall. Let’s call this speaking with authority.

We can contrast speaking with authority with speaking just as a person. Here one intends to speak without the weight of any authority, and not as the representative of any body of knowledge. One is speaking just for oneself. And so therefore one doesn’t expect the other person has to listen to them, either in terms of devoting time to listening to them or in terms of giving their words any extra credence. In speaking just as a person one is saying, as it were, “Here are some ideas. You can take it or leave it. I don’t claim to know more about this topic than you do or indeed more than any person in general. I am speaking not as one in the know, but more like one of the multitudes, one in the crowd. My aim is for us to speak as equals, as two people sharing our observations. Nothing more.”

Of course, academic philosophers often speak with authority about philosophy. That is just part of lecturing. When a philosophy professor starts an intro course by saying, “Philosophy began in ancient times and has been with us since…”, he is aligning himself with that “tradition” and aims to be speaking as a representative of it. Sometimes professors don’t intend this, and aim instead, even while lecturing, to speak just as a person. I will come back to that.

One doesn’t have to be an academic philosopher to speak with authority about philosophy. There are many ways in which one can be a non-academic and still aim to speak with authority. Popularizers of philosophy like Will Durant are an example (I am not saying “popularizer” to minimize Durant’s achievements as a philosopher and a writer, which were great). This is a form of lecturing without a lecture hall, where the author aims to speak on behalf of a tradition to the masses. Often the author’s educational background or the decades of their study shine through each page, letting the reader know that while what they are reading might not be the thoughts of a professor, they aren’t the thoughts of a ordinary lay person like the reader either. Sometimes the popularizer also sets himself apart from the professors, suggesting academic philosophy has gotten mired in specialization and so lost touch with the tradition, which the author is trying to rekindle for the reader.

Religious and spiritual contexts are another area where people who are not academics often speak with authority about philosophy. With spiritual thinkers like Eckhart Tolle the speaking with authority is grounded not in academic degrees but in the achievement of mystical experiences. One is then saying implicitly, if not sometimes even explicitly, “I am speaking with the authority of the experiences I have had, which connect me to the philosophers and mystics through the centuries.” One can sense this even in resolutely anti-gurus figure such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, where the authority in question is still an experience or a skill or an independence of mind which links one with the great figures of the past. In JK I often sense a sneer behind the smile, as if to say, “You people are still too caught up in tradition and hero worship and can’t think for yourself.”

My first steps into philosophy, both academically and non-academically, were with people who were very intent on speaking with authority. My father was neither a professor nor a spiritual teacher like Tolle. But his philosophical speech was permeated with speaking with authority – granted to him, as he saw it, not by any degrees or institutions, but by the philosophical insights he gained and his experience of the Ultimate Self. And when I went to college, the professors were speaking with authority, granted them by their PhDs and which connected them, in their mind, to philosophers all the way back in ancient times.

A part of me always resisted being spoken to with authority when it came to philosophy. The reason now seems obvious. For my father the authority he spoke with went back to sages like Yajnavalkya in The Upanishads. For my professors the authority they spoke with went back to Socrates. But what is the relation between Yajnavalkya and Socrates? Neither my father nor my professors had any remotely satisfying answer to that question, because really they had no real connection to the other tradition. The authority they spoke from had the form of being given to them by the philosophical tradition. And yet for both of them the tradition meant something very different. It was like having divorced parents, and each parent telling me their individual family history by itself captures the entirety of my family history – as if each parent had given birth to me all on their own.

When one speaks with authority about philosophy, the question naturally arises: where does that authority come from? I can see no answer to this question that is really satisfactory. Either the answer will be (a) contentful but limited, or (b) general but contentless. “The philosophical tradition” can mean a particular tradition, as it did for my father and my professors. But then of course “the” is entirely misleading: there is no unified philosophical tradition they are speaking of, and boils down to something more like, “the kind of things I read and was inspired by”. To counter this one can say something like “The global philosophical tradition”, or even more desperately “All the philosophical traditions together”. But what does that mean? Do we have any grasp on what “all” is here picking out other than just as a way to think there must be something called “philosophy” which holds it all together in all cultures? But why must there be something which holds it all together? Why assume philosophy is any one thing at all, instead of hundreds of different things, and which sometimes is science and religion and art and history and so on?

As we start to think about what a global perspective on philosophy might mean, we can see two broad camps, what I will call The Uber-Philosophy Camp and The Dissolution of Philosophy Camp. The Uber-Philosophy Camp sees the transition to a global perspective like rivers merging into the ocean. Whereas so far we have only seen individual traditions, now with a global eye we can see the philosophy tradition. The fight for the global philosophy curriculum, for example, then becomes a fight to reflect the one, uber-philosophy tradition rather than a few more local traditions which had institutional power.

The Dissolution of Philosophy Camp sees the transition to a global perspective more like big rivers breaking apart into thousands of rivulets. Instead of consolidating the European river with the Indian river with the Chinese river and so on, according to the dissolution of philosophy camp the global eye helps us see that to begin with the idea of these rivers being unitary entities was an illusion. Globalizing philosophy isn’t just a matter of consolidation – for example, of seeing how all the traditions were asking the same few big philosophy questions – but rather it is a matter of seeing the enormous complexity within each tradition, the very complexity which was hidden before by the need within each tradition to think of itself as the tradition.

My leaving academic philosophy was driven by the fact that I am strongly in the dissolution of philosophy camp. The kind of global philosophy I was, and am, seeking isn’t the big ocean of the one global tradition, but the rivulet of my own life in which different traditions come together in the very particular, contextual and contingent way that they do in my life. In this sense, for me global philosophy and understanding myself were always very closely connected. Not in the sense that if I understand the uber-ocean of global philosophy that will tell me who I am, but in the more particular sense that understanding philosophy globally means understanding the thousands, and indeed millions, of unique ways in which the rivers merge to create all of us as the individual people that we are – and so means, in the very first instance, me better understanding myself in my particularity.

You might see why on this picture speaking with authority felt strange to me. For if what I am seeking to understand is myself as the particular confluence of global traditions that is me, what kind of an authority can that give me about what philosophy can or must or will be for another person? If I believe in the tradition of philosophy (be it European or global or whatever), then me and another person belonging to that tradition would underscore why I can speak to him with authority. But if I don’t believe there is any such thing as the tradition of philosophy, and that there is only people seeking to understand themselves in their particular confluence of diverse influences, then each person is like a fractal. And it would be strange for one fractal to turn to another fractal and say, “I know our shared essence, so listen to me.”

In this way the dissolution of philosophy camp dovetails into embracing speaking just as a person as a mode of philosophical speech. I find myself less and less interested in telling anyone anything about philosophy in an authoritative way. I find myself more and more interested in understanding myself in terms of the myriad aspects of human history which come together in me. And I find myself sometimes interested to share that with others. Not speaking with authority but speaking just as a person to another person.

When I was in academia I knew of academics who tried to be academics while trying to speak just as a person even when they were lecturing or when giving talks. I found them charismatic because I resonated with their desire to not take on speaking with authority. In philosophy I felt Stanley Cavell tried to talk like this, where the boundary between philosophy and autobiography was deeply blurred, and where philosophy was seen not as a way to get at an essence of itself but as a way to be open to each other’s irreducible individuality. And I think he found inspiration for this mode of speech in Wittgenstein’s later writing. Richard Rorty is another thinker like this, who in giving up the ideas of truth as a mirror of nature sought to see philosophy as a way of creating and sharing stories that matter to us as individuals. Rorty, following Dewey, saw embracing this form of philosophical speech as just a person as essential to a democracy.

Ultimately I found the Cavell and Rorty approach unsatisfying. For whether one speaks with authority or just as a person is not only a matter of intention. It is also a matter of the institutional structures within which the speech takes place. Cavell might not have intended to speak with authority and even might have eschewed that in his mode of writing and communicating philosophy. But when you are a professor, that too at a prestigious department and with all the trappings of that prestige, speaking just as a person ends up becoming mainly a kind of fantasy – as if Cavell or Rorty weren’t really grading their students’ papers, or didn’t have institutional power over others just because they spoke autobiographically or gave up truth. It is not possible to be a professor and speak philosophy just as a person, for as with the doctor speaking with authority, sometimes the structure of the doctor’s office or the lecture hall itself determines the mode of communication.

Central to speaking just as a person is the possibility that no one might choose to listen to you. Because there is nothing compelling them, either institutionally or otherwise, to listen to you. In speaking just as a person one offers one’s thoughts not as lectures or as grounded by tradition or by mystical experiences, but rather just as bubbles being floated into the air, to be taken or not, without any compulsion. Often people won’t take them and will dismiss them as mere bubbles. And when one speaks as just a person there is nothing to be done then, nothing to complain about, no grievance to air. In appreciating the individuality of each person, there are no claims about what ought to be most relevant to another person. But just for that very reason, when one speaks just as a person and another speaks back just as a person, it is all the more rewarding.

Forgetting Philosophy

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.

Anatomy of an Argument

I said in my previous post that the selfful person sees others the way he sees trees and stars – as part of nature. Just as he doesn’t imagine he can control the stars, he doesn’t think he can control others.

But is this really plausible in human interactions? I wondered that today when I was on the verge of an argument with my wife.

I had a long day of work. Was tired and wanted to relax. I walk into the kitchen to help with dinner, and find my close to two year old daughter playing among a half box of uncooked spaghetti sticks all over the floor. I turn to my wife and she says, “It fell out and she was having fun, so I let it be. They say it’s good for children to play.”

I got annoyed and tried to not vent. I walked away. But the venting started in my mind: “Oh, you know this is just the kind of thing I don’t like. That too after a long day. Why can’t we have a nice mellow evening with everything in its place! Why does this have to happen? Why can’t you be different?” After a little while the venting kicked up a notch in my mind: “We didn’t play with food like this when I was growing up. Why can’t I pass on my childhood to my daughter? It’s like the way I was brought up is disappearing and we are not doing anything about it? How can you not care? My family’s form of life is disappearing and doesn’t that matter? We need to have our daughter have a link to that. How is that going to happen if she is allowed to throw and play with spaghetti all over the floor?”

I am writing this not to say my wife is wrong. I don’t think she was wrong. What is more interesting is the movement of my mind. In a matter of seconds, my mind went from spaghetti on the floor to feeling my kind of childhood is being lost to my daughter. Annoyance at cleaning up the mess merged with an existential angst of losing the past I knew, and all blurred together by a sense of this is not right!

And in the blur the focus becomes the other person. If only she wasn’t like this. If only she understood. How can I make her understand? Or at any rate make her change? Reasoning doesn’t seem to help. Maybe if I show my frustration and then my anger? Maybe if I seem sad or depressed? Maybe if I raise my voice or if I walk away and make her feel bad?

In that moment I wasn’t seeing my wife as if she was like the trees or the stars or the rain – something out of my control. To the contrary, I was upset because I was intent on seeing her as someone I should be able to control. To accept I can’t control her feels like a failure on my part, as if I were weak or not charasmatic enough to move her to be different. It’s as if my mind were saying: “No, she isn’t like the stars or the mountains. She is my friend, my wife, someone I share my life with. She is a part of me and I a part of her. How can I see her like the way I see the stars and the mountains? How can I see my daughter that way, or my mother? No! To be close means we can make claims on each other! That is what binds us together! And in this moment, damn it, this is the claim I make on this person in my life: I don’t like this! This will not do! I will show my dissatisfaction as a way of changing her, so that we can then be more in harmony.”

All this makes sense to the venting mind. But even through the haze of the venting and the argument I am having my mind (playing the parts of both myself and my wife), it is obvious this is not going to work. The more I get annoyed or sulk or show frustration, the more this moment is slipping away. Not towards a future where things will be how I want them to be, but towards a future where there will now only be yet another memory of a time when we didn’t see things in the same way. If I stick with my venting mind, the only thing which will be achieved is an evening of brooding.

The venting mind wants to blame this also on the other person. This evening is turning into a mess because she refuses to understand. If only she could see the point I am making and change and apologize and clean the mess quickly, we can have such a good evening. The problem is she is like the stars – unchangeable by me. She is not changing because she doesn’t care enough about me. If she cared, she wouldn’t be like the stars. She would be responsive to my feelings and desires, and would change here, now, in this instant. Instead of how she is, with her personality and her upbringing and her nature and her desires and her values, she would be more like me – she would push through all her background and her thoughts and feelings so that she can be responsive to me. Isn’t that what human relationships are about?

For the venting mind seeing the other as the stars is a sign of failure. As if the people don’t care enough about each other. As if caring would mean that they would be willing to change in each instant and be available to the other person.

The way I am willing to change in this instant to be available to her?

The venting mind continues: No, that’s totally different. I don’t have to change in this instance because I didn’t do anything wrong. She was wrong to make the mess. Why do I have to change to her? I dont have to. I won’t. I will not.

Here we see the basic illusion of the venting mind. The problem for the venting mind isn’t that a person might be like the stars to another person. It’s that I want to be like the stars to her! She should experience me as the unchanging and the unchangable, such that she feels she has to change for me.

If we pull on this thread, something interesting starts to surface. What is pushing the anger and the frustration, and the hurt and the disappointment – yes, even about something so trivial as spaghetti on the floor – is that I don’t experience myself like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Cool. Calm. Serene. Majestic. Still. At peace. Not easily perturbed.

No, clearly I don’t experience myself that way because here I am losing my cool and ready to spill my emotions all over the room just over some spaghetti on the floor.

What is hard for the venting mind to accept is that in this instance, in whole room the only thing which isn’t acting like the stars is me. My wife is fine. My daughter is fine. The spaghetti is fine. The floor is fine. The cat playing with the spaghetti is fine. The walls are fine. The tv is fine. The people on the tv arguing about politics are fine, least concerned by the spaghetti on the floor. My family are fine. India is fine. My childhood is fine. The past is fine. The future is fine.

None of these things are losing their cool. The only one getting upset is me. And that leads to a feedback loop. The more I see I am the only one getting upset, the more upset I get. The more upset I get, the more the situation feels wrong. And so the more wrong it seems that I am the only one getting upset.

The venting mind has gotten so bent out of shape because it identifies itself with me. The anxious mind says, “I am Bharath! Hear my troubles! I am troubled means Bharath is troubled. I am troubled means he is in danger. He might lose something important to him like his childhood or his self-image, and then he won’t be the same person. He will be a diminished person. He will less of who he is. His essence and his nature will be chipped away, one spaghetti like instance at a time. Unless he makes a stand now to stop the tide, he will be a pale reflection of himself. I am his essence and I am the only one protecting him. I am his defense. Without me he might perish. He isn’t like the stars – immutable and able to withstand anything. He is fragile, easily breakable if due care isn’t taken! I am that care. So hear me roar about the spaghetti on the floor!”

We are now very far indeed from the spaghetti on the floor. It was but an opportunity for the venting mind to release itself and to lay claim to who I am. To lay claim to itself as who I am.

The more I feed the venting, the more it spins its story: “I am you Bharath. You are not like the stars and the mountains. Don’t believe all that. You and what you hold dear, like the life you want for your daughter, are fragile. You have to be vigilant. Alert. On the guard for any crack which might lead to the slippery slope of change. Don’t believe all this stuff about you being part of the infinite nature of the world. Humbug. You need protection. You need me! Don’t set me aside! Don’t ignore me!”

Here if I manage to think of the other person as I think of the stars, something amazing happens. I don’t then think, “Oh, she is like the stars. That means she was right all along.” No. When I see her as the stars, I see that I cannot control her. That in fact the venting mind that has taken possession of my peace cannot control her. She like the stars is beyond the reach of my venting mind.

She is in her own world, living her own life. The spaghetti on the floor meant something different to her than it did to me. Something fun, something playful. Something to share with our daughter. In her world there was no problem. And no matter how much my venting mind wants to make it a problem for her, it is met over and over again with the hard reality that it isn’t a problem for her. At most my wife might appreciate it is a problem for me. But that doesn’t prove that it is a problem as such, that her instincts are all wrong and she needs to be a different person.

The life energy in each person resists this kind of change from outside. The life energy in each person is so strong and so potent that the venting mind’s delusional attempts to control the other person fall flat. And this is what the venting mind cannot accept – it’s own limits. That people are more than what the venting mind imagines people to be. That they are more than what the venting mind can understand.

To the venting mind accepting that the other person is like the stars is to accept defeat. But in reality, it is victory and freedom. For it is victory and freedom over the venting mind.

The moment I grasp that the venting mind can’t control the other person, I start to sense the possibility of another, more selfful truth: the venting mind doesn’t speak for me either! It has no more control over me than over other people.

The venting mind has power over me only as long as I give it that power. And I give it that power because I think I need it to control the other person. I try to use the venting mind as a weapon over the other person. But once it is activated, the venting mind doesn’t care which person it controls. It needs to control a person to survive. And when it sees it can’t control others, it turns on the person who activated it. It now says I am you and you are me, and spins its web over the person who tried to use it merely as a weapon.

Seeing the other person as the stars breaks the spell of the venting mind. By seeings its limits over others, I can see its limits over myself as well.

Then slowly an awareness starts to emerge. Maybe I am not the venting mind as it says I am. Maybe I am not fragile. Maybe I don’t have to constantly be on guard. Maybe there is something of the stars in me. Maybe I too am like the stars and the mountains and the oceans. Maybe I can let go of the venting, scared mind and be with myself.

Then like the spaghetti on the floor, and my daughter playing with the spaghetti, and the cat playing next to her, and the trees outside, and the moon shining over those trees, and the stars sparkling next to the moon, I too am fine. Perfectly fine.

Selfish, Selfless and Selfful

Normally the opposite of selfish is thought of as selfless. The selfish person doesn’t care about others and only cares about himself. The selfless person doesn’t care about himself but only cares about others.

I have spent most of my life trying to be selfless, thinking that is the way to avoid being selfish. Being selfish never appealed to me. Helping others, improving the world, doing good seemed more exciting and fun. More who I wanted to be.

But I have come to see that selfish and selfless are two sides of the same coin. And most interestingly, neither is really about the self at all.

The selfish person is convinced he is acting only for himself. For what is good for him. But actually he has already given the game away. For what is good for him is always defined in relation to what he is not going to share with others. Or in terms of what he is going to get before others. Or how he is going to think about himself and not others.

When one is being selfish one inevitably starts with a comparison with others. I want more of that pizza. I want to be rich. I want to be famous. I want my needs to be recognized.

The selfish person is trapped not within himself, but in thinking of himself as constantly at war with others. That he has to be on his guard lest what he wants or what he feels entitled to is taken away by others. The person who thinks only about himself and not those around him isn’t literally thinking only about himself. To the contrary. He is stuck thinking about himself only through the other – in terms of how he will not be moved by their needs or ideas, but will listen only to himself.

The selfish person lives under the illusion that he is really living for himself. He fails to see that he is so caught in the grips of seeing conflict everywhere that his sense of his own desires and wishes are totally permeated by his image of others as competitors.

The selfless person is the converse. He thinks he has merged his desires entirely with the needs of others, so that he is simply a walking extension of others and the community. He wants to stamp out selfishness so much that his desires have merged with the communal good.

The selfless person fails to see that it’s not that his desires have disappeared. They have simply attached themselves to the desires of others. The selfless person is driven not so much by the pristine intrinsic desire to help others, as much as by a heightened sense of self doubt and whether he is good enough to have desires of his own or capable enough to fulfill them even if he did.

While the selfish person is actually implicitly fixated on others, the selfless person is implicitly fixated on himself. Where the selfish person feels he has to assert himself so as not to submit to others, the selfless person feels he has to merge with others so as to fill the void he senses within himself. The selfish person is driven by curtailing the other’s will. The selfless person is driven by covering up the void they experience in their own will.

Being selfish or selfless are not fun. They take a lot of work. A lot of effort. A lot of self-deception. A lot of struggle. To convince oneself either that only oneself matters or that only others matter. To gain ones confidence by dividing the world into the selfish and the selfless and then placing oneself in one of those categories. And trying one’s best, against the currents of change and a greater self awareness, to stay selfish or selfless.

It is draining being selfish or selfless. A constant act of self-creation or self-erasure, while convincing oneself that it is one’s natural, default, true, inevitable state.

This is most of our world. People are usually some combination of the selfish and the selfless. Caught in a struggle between the self-involved and the do-gooder part of themselves. The self-involved think they win if they can resist the do-gooders and keep to their “natural” path of their own desires; a selfish world where each can do their own thing. The do-gooders think they win if they can help others to get from being self-involved to becoming do-gooders; a selfless community where everyone cares only about each other.

And so the cycle spins and spins, as the selfish and the selfless run around after each other.

However, often the most interesting, creative and fun things are done neither by the selfish nor the selfless vision of ourselves. But by, what we might call, the selfful.

The selfful person is content in himself not because he is choosing his desires over others. Rather it is because he does not see the others as threats at all. He sees other people the way he sees the trees and the stars and the animals in the wild: as part of nature running its course and not defined in relation to him. To the selfful person the person honking in a traffic jam isn’t a threat to his desires. The honking man is a force of nature just like a rainstorm or thunder – something that has to be navigated around and which mainly exists in its own space and not simply in relation to oneself.

The selfful man spends little time thinking about others because he doesn’t define himself in relation to them. He sees others as external to his own egocentric space – as not defined by how they matter to his life. He sees others as comets moving in and out of one’s path not because they care about his path, but just because that is how the broader forces are moving them.

Not fixated on others, the selfful person has no reason to be selfless either. Just as others are not threats, neither are they helpless creatures waiting to be helped by oneself. To the selfless person others exist mainly in relation to oneself. To the selfful person others exist mainly in relation to themselves and to nature.

The selfful person doesn’t push away others the way the selfish person does. Nor does he merge himself with others the way the selfless person does. He sees others the way we look at animals at the zoo. As interesting specimens, which sometimes hide from us when we want to see them and sometimes run at us as if we were their prey in the wild. But in both cases always aware that there is a barrier between them and us such that their actions cannot really perturb us.

The selfish and the selfless are like charioteers who hitch their wagon to a wild horse. Thinking they can defeat or tame the wild horse, they focus most of their energies on the animal. And being pulled here and there by the horse, dragged on the ground and thrown into the air, the selfish thinks he is controlling the wild horse and the selfless thinks he has united with the wild horse.

The selfful, respectful of the wild horses which are others, doesn’t seek to control them. He lets them be what they are, letting them run around and kicking up dust and charging at him or playing in the grass and nuzzling up to him as it suits their mood. Aware that others are driven not by a will he can control but by the majestic power of nature itself working through them, the selfful person sees others the way he sees a powerful wave in the ocean or a stampede of buffalo – with awe for its majesty and with care not to get too close.

Free of thinking about others, the selfful person can focus on himself and his relation to nature. With his attention not diverted towards every comment and action of passers by, of what they did in years past and what they will say in years to come, the selfful person can look within and see the majestic power of the wild horse and the powerful wave and the stampeding buffalo in his own consciousness. His mind free from struggle with others, it is free to contemplate itself.

To the selfish and the selfless their own selves are mere seats from which they mainly look outward, away at the actions of others. To the selfful, free of feeling mentally bound to others, their own self is as vast and as unending as the universe. He seeks neither to protect his self nor to forgo it, but to immerse himself in his self.

The selfful sees each self as a vast ocean. He can neither control nor truly help other oceans. His focus is on diving into the ocean of his own self and to the explore the depths of his consciousness. He swims the live long day in the ocean of his consciousness like a child taking a swim or a scientist exploring unknown depths or an artist lost in the reveries of his inspiration.

To the selfish problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately just ways others are trying to control them. The only response they see as apt is to throw off the shackles of others’ impositions so that they can do what they want.

To the selfless problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately opportunities to do good and to change things for the better. To help others be less selfish so that together we can merge into a common, united society.

To the selfful problems like global warming or poverty or the pandemic are ultimately a reflection of the complexity of nature. The selfful neither seeks to deny the problem like the selfish nor focus immediately on group action like the selfless. He seeks rather to be with the complexity of the problems by being attuned to the complexity of nature. For the selfful person the door to such attunement is through understanding his own self.

To the selfful person the future isn’t, as it is for the selfish, just a never ending battle of wills. Nor is it, as it is for the selfless, a utopian dream where all people will live as equal beings, sharing everything without strife. For the selfful person the future is mainly defined by more and more people becoming open to the mysteries of their own selves, and acting from the space of that stillness. What that looks like is as hard to predict as predicting the effects of millions of waves crashing into each other.

The selfish person sees peace as a fantasy. The selfless person sees peace as an achievement to be gained by changing others. The selfful person sees peace as the natural state of the self when it is immersed in itself, free to explore itself with creativity and play.

The selfful person won’t thereby end wars, feed the homeless or cure diseases. But in seeking to better understand himself and not getting caught in turmoil with others, he unleashes the potential to transform the deeper, psychic energies of which the wars and the poverty are outward symptoms.

The selfish and the selfless spend most of their time thinking about others. They seek to understand themselves in terms of others, and so end up understanding neither themselves nor others.

The selfful person focuses on himself not through others but directly through a focus on his own awareness. By letting others be with themselves, without imposing one’s narratives and needs on them, the selfful person gains the freedom to be fully with himself. What a sweet freedom it is!

Ice Cream, Movies and Reality

There are broadly two ways of thinking of philosophy. On one view, it is primarily concerned with beliefs: what to believe about the world, what justifies those beliefs and so on. On another view, it also involves actions: how we should act, the means of changing our actions and building new habits.

The belief oriented philosophy can be very diverse: the beliefs can concern logic, ethics, art, mind, etc.

The action oriented philosophy can be very diverse as well. For some, like Peter Singer, the aim of their philosophy is to change social structures. In Singer’s case, how we treat animals and the planet. For others, the action at issue is more explicitly political. As famously with Marx, but also with any number of other social issues like racism and so on. For yet others, the action at issue is more personal, changing one’s personal habits and modes of life to free oneself from illusions and to achieve a more peaceful, mindful life.

Is one of these the right view of philosophy? I doubt it. There is no the conception of philosophy. These different conceptions overlap and diverge in various ways, because after all beliefs and actions are connected. It is not a matter of which is right, but which part of the vast fabric of philosophy one is drawn to.

Right now I am most drawn to the personal transformation vision of philosophy. To changing my own habits.

This can seem puzzling. I am often puzzled by it myself. There is a possible new civil war in the air in America. There are huge problems like global warming and big technology changes. We are in the middle of a pandemic. And yet I find my creative and intellectual energies focused on how I eat ice cream while watching movies. What? How could this be so important? It sounds silly almost. But it is also the best thing I can do right now for myself.

I can only help myself and the world if I am not living into a fantasy reality. That doesn’t have to take the form of addiction to drugs, alcohol or violence. Those are clear cases, but normally people live into different fantasies in many more mundane ways. For me ice cream and movies is one of those mundane but significant ways.

In high school I would come home at 2:30 when school ended. My parents would come home around 6. Often in that in between time I would watch tv and do homework or sleep or listen to sports radio. But sometimes, maybe once a week or so, I would go to the library to get a movie and then stop by McDonalds to get a Bic Mac meal and a hot fudge sundae. I would put in the movie, eat the food and vicariously immerse myself into the America symbolized by the Hollywood movie and McDonalds. The Hollywood images and the sugar rush merged into a delirium of Americana.

For my school friends life after 2:30 was a time of exploring their social life as teenagers. Playing sports or hanging out, going to the mall, spending time with their boyfriend or girlfriend and so on. All of this seemed unenterable to me. Not only were the social habits unfamiliar to them, but I couldn’t understand how to reconcile them with the habits I had as a son, grandson, nephew and so on. Family life was loving and supportive, but it didn’t offer a guide of how to grow into a world which was even more alien to my parents, grandmother and uncles and aunts than it was to me.

So with the movies and the ice cream I entered into a side reality of how I was American. In school I was still reticent and the nice, Indian kid who got good grades and was well behaved, and didn’t curse or date, and kept to himself. But in my afternoon movie and food binges, my mind found its release into an American world which it could enter without disrupting my Indian side. If I wanted to date or tell my parents I want to go to the mall on Friday nights to just hang out, that threated to undo my own self identity as a son. Not that my parents might have objected; they might have objected to the dating, probably not to the mall, though in my broader family’s consciousness, American teenage social life was all of a piece tied up with dating. But it was not my parents’ or my grandmother’s wishes which stopped me. It was as much my own sense of myself as an Indian. I didn’t want to let go of that. American movies and American food typified to me by McDonalds and ice cream offered a side entry into America. Or so I thought. What it was actually doing was offering an entry into a side America – one which existed mainly in my mind.

It was about this same time that in the evenings I started talking to my father about philosophy. It was a different kind of binge and a different attempt to balance the Indian and American sides. It only occurred to me many years later that those philosophy conversations were for my father partly his way of balancing his Indian and American selves under a universal philosophy. His philosophical expression after his marriage had been more latent in India. But it burst to the forefront of his consciousness, and thereby into our nuclear family life, in America, as he had to work out for himself which parts of his thinking were parochially Indian and which parts could be transferred into his American life, and so were more universal.

This was part of the appeal of those philosophy conversations for me. Immigration, America and India were never mentioned as such. We didn’t talk about my father’s work or about my school life. But these were very much in the air for me, and I think also for him, though perhaps more unconsciously for him. We were talking effectively about these topics because the central issue of the conversations was identity. Who am I? What is my nature? What is reality? What is illusion? What is Dharma? What is my dharma? Does it change by context or is it immutable?

The grip of these conversations on me was all the more intense because we weren’t talking about immigration directly. The conversation was so universal in its aims that it felt like we might have had the exact same conversation in the exact same way even if we had stayed in India. That was a powerful feeling, like it was a window both into the Indian life I had lost and also into a deeper reality which was the same whether we stayed in India or came to America. More than anything, the conversations to me were opening up a reality that I felt I could actually live into, one not filled with the contrasts of Indian and American habits and identities, but which could synthesize the two into a broader identity and framework.

I don’t think my parents knew much about my afternoon movie and McDonalds binges. Even if they did, they might not have thought too much of it. But in retrospect I see that the afternoon side America binges and the evening philosophy conversations morphed in my mind into a single, transcendent reality, which held for me the contours of my growth and my future.

As high school was ending, I became less interested in “normal” America and developing a normal social identity and career in that America. After all, that America was not one I was familiar with, nor saw as my own. For me America was the space of my movie and ice cream afternoons – it was not a physical space, as much as it was a digital space, in the land of the movies, grounded in the very particular physical and gastronomical reality of McDonalds.

The America I was growing into in my mind was a side America defined mainly not by the habits I was inculcated into in the prim and proper spaces of the classes in my high school, but was one defined by the magical, hyper violent and hyper sexualized reality of Hollywood movies.

American heroes strapped on big guns and killed terrorists and aliens – all the while joking and talking to each other in their American way. Romance wasn’t something to be explored by who in my school I would ask out, but whether I liked Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts more. Sexuality wasn’t something to do with having children or sharing love, but was about sex scenes to be mesmerized by in movies like Basic Instinct. None of this felt unreal to me, as if the violence and the sex were cartoon versions of what adult human life is actually like. Bollywood movies were fantasy – that seemed clear with their giant mansions and hyper melodrama. But Hollywood movies seemed to reflect not a fantasy America, but a truer America, one which lies underneath and behind the surface normalness. I didn’t realize the way Hollywood movies were a different kind of fantasy.

It was only in the last few years, with the rise of Trumpism, that I started to realize that the side America that I grew into as an immigrant is similar to the kind of America many Americans who were born here had also grown into. I thought I had to think of America in terms of movies and McDonalds and ice cream because as an immigrant I couldn’t relate to the actual physical America in which many of my white friends moved.

But recently I stared to think that actually for many Americans their sense of America was derived just as mine was in those afternoons: through TV and fast food. That amazingly this was true even for some rich Americans like Trump. His surrounding himself with McDonalds food wasn’t a ploy to get poor Americans to like him; it was how he saw America himself. For many of them, as for me, America was first and foremost a digital reality – defined by TV and movies, and the food they would eat while watching the shows. Only whereas I accepted the digital reality as a side reality to which I was confined as an immigrant, they are seeking to impose that side reality as the main reality, as something they are entitled to as Americans.

For me the philosophy conversations and the afternoon movies and food merged into a single world of America as was to me – what it meant most viscerally and personally for me. It was a synthesis of abstract ideas, visceral images and the “earth” element of food. The three in due time merged into a kind of whole such that they were inseparable for me.

Even when I was in college and grad school, philosophy, watching movies and eating American food went hand in hand. In college I would often go to the dining hall when it opened at 5 for dinner, and stay there till it closed at 9, reading and doing my homework while eating. I had friends and would often eat with them. But for the most part I felt grounded to the environment not through those interactions with friends, which often felt like a haze to me, but through the food I could now eat just like an American and which was arranged in a buffet in the dining hall: burgers, pasta, lasagna, pizza, chicken nuggets, burritos, unlimited supply of soft drinks, cakes, ice creams.

Of course, I couldn’t eat all these in any given day, but they were structuring my life in a way that felt visceral and immediate. Pizza nights on monday, burgers on tuesday, mexican food on wednesday, and so on. To most other students the food was a background to their social lives and experiences. For me the food was the main way I experienced being connected to my surroundings and to feel in fact that I was connected – that I wasn’t just a brain in a vat thinking, but was rooted to the environment. For the most part, I lacked and didn’t cultivate this connection through social relationships – the monk self identity thwarted that. Rather, I was like that familiar concept of the gluttonous monk. The food was a way to make up for the gap I felt socially.

In high school I was thin. By mid way through college I was developing the body which has continued: a little overweight, and forever trying – sort of, in my mind – to lose that weight, but without giving up the “American” food and ice cream which felt like my mode of being an American (of course, Indian food with its carbs and sugar has its own effects). It was only when I started dating my wife to be half way through grad school that the idea that not all Americans eat McDonalds really sunk in. For me McDonalds was high end food, because it was American and America is high end. For my wife, growing up in Berkeley and at the time a health food fanatic, McDonalds was barely food.

The pattern continued in grad school. I no longer had the meal plan and so no more buffets. Now reading and writing was done in pizza shops, burrito places, diners, sub shops – and also, like others, in coffee shops with coffee and a croissant or a muffin to keep the ideas flowing. The theme was the same: thinking and food were united, inseparable. Some fellow grad students would think while smoking; others while being a bar for hours, drinking. For me it was food and movies. I would often head off to a movie theater to watch a couple of movies at a time, or else back to my apartment to watch a movie on my laptop while eating. When I was a professor, the local cookie and ice cream was a regular stop, once every couple of days.

The pattern is consistent: the food was not something set apart from my intellectual life, but was an integral part of it. Not in the crazy sense that what I ate determined what I thought, as in I believed in free will when I ate pizza, but believed in determinism when I ate pasta. Rather, it was more like the food was the fuel on which the engine of my mind functioned. More than in the obvious sense in which this is true, but in that without the particular food and the sugar, my mind felt foggy and lost. What I lacked socially – and in terms of my identification with academic philosophy – I was making up even as a professors, as I did in high school, through the food and the movies.

This is one reason I don’t believe what is mainly motivating most Trump supporters is racism. Yes, racism is a part. But there is for his supporters an appeal which is independent of race. It has to do with their nexus of ideas-images-food. Trumpism, social media and fast food. And guns. This is also why some immigrants find Trumpism a natural home: they find the digital, mythologized America, and the land of barbeques and burgers and steak and Bud Light, fits more their image of the America they came to partake of than the America of vegan food and spinach shakes, independent films and museums.

Of course, there is nothing wrong as such with movies. They are great. I love them. Same with ice cream. McDonalds is perhaps less straight-forward, and for some time now I stopped eating it.

But sometimes I get into the mode of eating ice cream with watching a movie, as it were creating a little me-time away from the bustle of house work and child care, and I have noticed that inevitably these me-time moments, while in the moment giving a rush, usually end up reinforcing a pattern of feeling disengaged from the broader society.

In a way that makes sense. The ice cream-movie binge mode of being is tied up with the feeling that I can only partake of American on the side. As if my normal, daily interaction with my wife and daughter, with my family and with my work, with my neighbors and with the broader issues in America – as if all that isn’t enough to ground me, and that still, as in high school, I can still only enter America through the side gate and vicariously through movies and the sugar rush which makes me lose myself into the movie. But time has gone by and my life has changed. I have grown, and grown into being an American as I am. I don’t have to look to movies or books or social media or politics to know whether and how to be an American. I am American as I am, as is every American.

Ultimately, I want to give up the need for the ice cream-movie binges because they perpetuate the feeling I am somehow not good enough on my own, without them. That I need the soothing, mind-numbing sugar high and the movie fantasies to feel connected to the world around me. I need to free myself of this crutch because I see that it is exactly this kind of crutch which is hurtling American towards domestic terrorism and a cultural civil war, and which is also limiting my own development.

The way I have been in the grips of a fantasy America through movies and food, so too many Americans are now. It will not help to keep calling them racist, or bad or stupid. It will not help to say that they simply have to change to catch up with the times. Like I have been holding onto a fantasy, fueled by getting lost in movies and food that is bad for me, so too they are holding to a fantasy fueled in a similar way. In fact, now turbo fueled by social media. And they are fighting hard to hold on to that fantasy. They are open to conspiracy theories and make believe journalism because they don’t want to give up the fantasy. They are convinced they are the ones in touch with reality and the others are the delusional ones.

The reason they are drawn to the fantasy is because they feel bad about themselves and feel they are not good enough in the eyes of the now changing America. They prefer the fantasy just as I preferred the fantasy over cultivating relationships in high school and college – for the new relationships seemed too hard and too impossible. The productive way to respond to this isn’t to reinforce their already felt fear that they are not good enough, for that will only drive them deeper into the fantasy. The hard work is to reach out to them to say they are good as they are without the fantasy, so that they will feel less need for the fantasy. Obviously it is hard to say that to someone pointing a gun at you.

That is a challenge America faces as a country, just as other countries do in their own. In America there are tens of millions of people who prefer the fantasy world over a shared reality. We cannot just wage war on them, even if they are egging it on, or just put them all in jail. Some form of an attempt to connect with them as people is crucial, to meet them where they are emotionally and intellectual without just agreeing with them. To find ways to show them their humanity is respected without buying into the binary terms in which they are thinking.

This cannot be done merely from a stance of us telling them what is real and what is fantasy. For people don’t respond to assertions. They respond to actions. They respond when they can see others – people with whom they disagree – themselves working through and trying to give up their own fantasies. Based on their own entrenched habits of life, of how they engage with social media, or watch movies or how they deal with their own addictions to food or painkillers or pornography or violence.

We are not in a space of the usual marketplace of ideas: people calmly debating ideas in suits and across tables. Nor do the familiar modes of political change – of petitions and marches and protests – speak to how people can talk to each other across information bubbles. Both Trump supporters and their critics believe that what we are dealing with is a mass mental health crisis: each side feels the other side is not just wrong or just being blasé, but that they are being delusional.

I am not suggesting both sides are equally right; I don’t think that. But my point is that the terms of the engagement on both sides are squarely in the language of mental health crisis. Many Trump supporters thinks their opponents are pedophile, sex traffickers who have lost grip on reality. Many Trump critics think their opponents are delusional narcissists who can’t accept reality. Given that, simply yelling at the other side or trying to morally shame them is just the unhelpful way to proceed. To say someone is delusional doesn’t mean I can then feel justified to say they are dumb. If I genuinely believe they are delusional, then that has to change the way I relate to them, of how I can’t just expect them to understand me through their delusion, but of how I might have to enter their delusion and help guide them out of it – the way mental health professional do everyday.

The anger in the air of our public discourse is like the anger of someone who doesn’t want to deal with their family member’s mental health issues. One can feel, “Damn him, he has to get his act together. I am too busy to deal with this crap!” Similarly I think a lot of people feel Trump supporters don’t deserve more attention, more understanding. The thought goes: “Damn it, they are just whining. We have racial justice to deal with. Global warming. The pandemic. Economic inequality. We are busy and don’t have time to deal with your neurosis. Get yourself together and shape up – just accept that you are racist and sexist and the problem, so we can move forward!”

I can feel the grip of this thought. But the thing is, it’s totally counter productive. It is a form of venting and not a solution. It is also a way to bury one’s head in the sand and assume that the way change happened fifty years ago still works.

The mental health issues we are facing are in part a result of the new social dynamics unleashed by the changing technology and social media. That means the mental health issues are not a side issue we can ignore while we address the main problems. Given that the changing technological landscape and its effects on the human mind and our modes of interaction and forms of identity is central to our life moving forward, we have to deal constructively with the negative mental effects of this landscape even as we want to use it to deal with economic justice and climate change. To do that we have to be open to the ways in which we ourselves are pulled into fantasies and delusional ways of thinking, and how we might have to change our lives, even at the granular level of entertainment and food.

Now when I am eating ice cream in a mindless way watching an action movie, I am left to wonder: is this simply a form of relaxation for me, or is it part of a broader pattern, in my life and also in our society, which cascades down the line and contributes to our social unrest? A part of me wishes the former is true so I can just go back to my ice cream and movie. But another part of me senses the latter is true and that what feels like mere relaxation is anything but. That perhaps I need deeper ways of relaxation which don’t simply cover over hard things in a haze of entertainment, but which helps me sit with and cultivate mindful awareness of those hard things so I don’t unconsciously act out of them.

Nostalgia in Politics and Philosophy

How did the Capitol insurrectionists get into a frame of mind where they felt storming the Capitol was a natural – in fact essential – thing to do?

From the videos and pictures, it is clear they were not all poor white people. Some were black and brown and I even saw an interview from that day with a Native American woman supporting Trump. And there were rich people as well, flying in private plans to partake in the event. And some well educated too, like Senator Hawley, with his fist in the air leading the protestors, who studied at Stanford and Yale. Nor is it a matter of lifestyle. The Qanon Shaman guy apparently only eats organic food.

What unites this group which is not racially or economically monolithic? They support Trump and believe the election was stolen. Which only begs the question: why would a diverse group unify around those beliefs? So much so as to spend their own money, time and endanger their life to do this?

I have no idea of course. Not sure anyone can say for sure right now. But I have a guess that they are united by a sense of nostalgia and not having robust local ties to their communities in terms of family, friends and so on. Not saying they don’t have family and friends and jobs. They might. But that those aren’t meeting the needs of the nostalgia they are feeling.

Nostalgia isn’t the same as being alone or poor or uneducated. It’s something else. It’s it’s own thing in terms of its structure psychologically and how it’s needs are met.

For all my disagreements with extreme Trump supporters, there is this sense in which I identify with them. Nostalgia has played a big part in my life as well. And like they are running into the abstractions of Trumpism to respond to it, I ran into the abstractions of philosophy.

Imagine a child being taken out of a parent’s arms forever and the parent longing for continuing that last embrace with their child. To me that is the root of nostalgia. When something one is used to and loves is inexplicably lost and one keeps searching for it – and unable to let go and face the new reality, one keeps searching for it in new ways and new experiences. Seeking the sense of that old feeling becomes the habit, and feeling like one can experience it again becomes the new high. Like a drug and an addiction, the high of that sense of recovering what was lost becomes the center of one’s life, crowding out everything else. The mob storming the capitol was seeking that collective high. Willing to “be at war” because everything else feels hollow when the nostalgia feels unaddressable and the past feels lost.

Nostalgia is driven by fantasy. If what is lost is the kind of thing that could be gotten back, one wouldn’t be content with nostalgia. One would seek the way to get it back. But when something feels completely lost in one sense and one can’t accept it, then nostalgia supports the feeling that somehow it can be gotten back. That indeed the solution to the nostalgia starts to seem inseparable from the thing that was lost, as if the past which is wanted and the feeling of nostalgia are the same.

Some family and friends have said to me that I am giving too much credit to extreme Trump supporters. That I am “bending over backwards” to make them seem rational. When, the thought goes, they are irrational and racist. That’s all.

I can’t agree. Sure, storming the capitol, besides being illegal, is irrational. It was driven by conspiracy theories and fantasy thinking. And by a good deal of racism by some to boot.

But I don’t have to bend over backwards to identify with them. I feel it intuitively, the way an alcoholic might recognize a drug addict.

It was partly my luck that my substance of addiction to deal with nostalgia was not something that led to nationalism or fundamentalism, but to something more grand and majestic sounding: philosophy. I feel a sympathy for those Trump supporters, the way I do also with those on the left with a different emotional nostalgia, because I can see that if I didn’t have philosophy, I might have been tempted to fall into the same kind of conspiracy theory wormhole that leads to storming the Capitol. And which will lead some in the coming days, months and years to continuing the violence.

There is a simple recurring experience I have which captures how and why nostalgia entered my life.

I love Indian music: Bollywood music, Telugu film music, Carnatic music. Love is perhaps not the right word. It’s more like the music feels like home. But with the twist that it also constantly makes me feel estranged from that home because I dont fully understand the lyrics in Hindi or Telugu or Sanskrit as the case maybe. I could of course brush up on my Telugu or Hindi so I can understand better, but I never did. Never felt like doing. Because it’s not the fact that I don’t fully understand the lyrics that is the root issue. That is but a marker for the deeper, root issue. Which is the sense of having lost the community I experienced with my friends and family in my neighborhood in India when I was 11.

Our move to America was sudden and the way it happened was unexpected. My father’s health was critical and what was supposed to an immigration to America in the future became “mom and dad are leaving now for America and my brother and I will follow in a few months and that is where we will be from then on.” This happened so swiftly, and in what no doubt were extremely stressful conditions for my parents, that I doubt as a 11 year old I processed their leaving or even processed it two months later even as I was sitting in the plane with my brother on the way to New York.

We landed at JFK around the time of the presidential election in 1988. From the airport my uncle drove us to the hospital where my father was to have surgery the next day, and when my uncle took my brother and I to Pittsburgh to live with his family for a few months until my parents could get settled. I remember the drive from the airport to the hospital. It was fall. My uncle bought me an ice cream. I was eating it and looking at the skyscrapers. Feeling buoyed by my brother sitting next to me, who I realize in retrospect was my rock and sense of home through that flight and in that time.

I don’t mean to play this up as if it was somehow particularly hard. Surely in terms of trauma and hardship, this is pretty mild. I had it lucky. My parents were roughly the age I am now and I admire them all the more imaging what it must have been like for them.

But one’s experience is one’s experience. The roots of a nostalgia were set with that plane ride. All this would be news to most of my extended family since they saw only the happy, engaged, communal Bharath. The same Bharath they felt as in India.

What they didn’t see, and I didn’t either for many years, was that there was a big difference between the Bharath in India and the family Bharath in America.

I was a boisterous, happy go lucky, social kid in India. With my family and also with my friends. I left India just as that Bharath was entering adolescence, developing a more social identity outside the home. All my nascent habits for a social identity were rooted in the Indian context of my upbringing. With the sudden shift to America, I was forced to now enter adolescence in a new context where the social habits were quite different.

After a few months in Pittsburgh, and my father got better and my parents got jobs and a place, my brother and I joined my parents in New York. After a year my brother went to college.

Facing the middle school and high school social contexts that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t understand, I withdrew. After school, I came come to play video games or watch tv or listen to sports radio – the last the only link I felt to the sports comradarie I enjoyed in India with my friends and which seemed hard to cultivate in America. I had friends in high school, one I still talk to today. But it often seemed a pale image of the friendship and teenage years I might have had in India or if I grew up entirely in America – a pale image of the alternate world of nostalgia that was starting to get a grip on me. The more I withdrew from the social world of high school, sensing it to be too American and in tension with the Indian life at home, the more the alternate world of nostalgia seemed my natural home. Not so much yearning for the life in India – which as a teenager I no more had a connection to than I did to the teenage life America – but yearning for this third thing which existed nowhere but which was more real to me than either India or America. The nostalgic world of India where I was home.

In 1995, the summer before college, my family and I visited India, back to Hyderabad where we were from. My cousins and friends who I had been close to six years earlier talked eagerly with me, sharing their teenage experiences as if we lived in the same world. I felt withdrawn from them as I did from my friends in America. It felt like they were talking about a different Bharath, one whom they claimed to know so well and yet who I myself had forgotten and couldn’t remember. They, like my friends in America, saw me in only two terms: either the Bharath they knew or the other Bharath (Indian or American, as the case may be). But for me both these Bharaths were somewhat unreal. The real Bharath – the one in my inner ruminations and emotions – belonged neither to America nor to India. He belonged to the nostalgic world where he was whole, simple and pure – without the divisions and the confusions but just with a abiding sense of being home and all is well.

Incidentally, this is why Trump supporters genuinely can’t recognize themselves as the racists their critics claim they are. Even if they are waving confederate flags, the America they yearn for isn’t the actual past but rather the nostalgic America of their imagination. In nostalgic America there are no evils, no troubles, no inner conflicts – it is the land not of the past or the future exactly, but of a side reality which has a grounding in the past but isn’t defined by that past. Nostalgia expresses itself as a desire for the past, but what it mainly points to is itself – to the perpetuation of the nostalgia itself. In the nostalgic imagination the past and the feeling of the nostalgia are inseparable. The feeling of nostalgia is the home base. What one fights for in the name of the past is to preserve that feeling.

That was me as a sixteen year old. I felt no social links to either India or America. I had deep social links to my extended family in America, but it was not an indicator of who I could become as I grew older.

When I started talking philosophy with my father when I was 16, the world and emotion of philosophy merged perfectly with that of my nostalgic world. My father’s philosophy, like many Indians of his generation, was a Hindu, Indian enfused universalism. Both resolutely Indian and global at the same time, akin to how for many Christians and also many European philosophers their worldview was European and global at the same time. How can something be Indian and global at the same time? I had no idea. But emotionally I was drawn to it because it had somewhat the same structure as my nostalgic world: not quite Indian, not quite American, but still Indian and also including both.

Philosophy thus started to become my expression of my nostalgic world. When I was confused about who I was or what was happening in the world, in my mind I started to fall back onto I am a philosopher. The identification grew stronger and gained more and more resonance. If I told people I yearn for a nostalgic world, they wouldn’t understand, or worse, they might have laughed at me. But if I said “I am a philosopher”, they seemed to leave me alone and even respect me somewhat. As if it was something worthwhile to be. It was a honorific which gave me a public identity while merging my interests with my passionate sense that the only place I really belong is in my nostalgic world. Even more: philosophy seemed the way in which I could get others to join me in my nostalgic world. People who might otherwise say I am being too emotional and I just need to let go (or what I was told a lot by friends: I just need a girlfriend), would change their demeanor if I mentioned philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita and Plato. Now the tables were turned. Instead of me in my nostalgic world being the delinquent, philosophy gave me a the sense that the others were the delinquents – and so made me feel more that my nostalgic world might be the real world after all.

I am not saying this is how everyone gets in philosophy. Surely not, just as not everyone gets in politics through Trumpism or Antifa. There are simpler, less nostalgic entry points into philosophy and into politics. Those entering in the less emotionally laden way usually aren’t the ones storming the Capitol. For the extremists, the actions don’t feel extreme but entirely natural because it is their only outlet for their nostalgia – or for their futuristic utopia, as the case maybe.

For me at 18 the nostalgia inspired philosophy made me think and say that I want to be a monk. It was the social identity that felt most in line with my disenchantment with the available social identities. I argued with my father about it. I told my friends and family about it. I believed it myself, and saw it as the reason I didn’t date or go to parties or generally felt I had no meaningful friendships that spoke to me in a deep way. All without actually going even once to a monastery and doing anything remotely practical in the direction of becoming a monk. After all, the point of the monk talk ultimately wasn’t to direct actual action. It was to enable me to grown into the philosophy world which was also identical for me with my nostalgic world. The feeling of being a monk was all the reality I needed. The feeling and reality were merged in the nostalgic world I was growing into.

When I became a philosophy major and then went to grad school, more than the eurocentrism, what unnerved me was that philosophy student in a university didn’t have any relation to monk philosopher in my nostalgic world. I became a philosophy major thinking it was an extension of my monk identity. Over time the folly of this assumption became more and more clear. It’s like if an extreme Trump supporter joined the establishment Republicans thinking it will be a natural fit. Though establishment Republicans have their problems, can’t entirely blame them for wanting to keep Trumpism at bay. This was the question I pondered over constantly in academia: is academic philosophy wrong or was I wrong to think my monkish/nostalgic energy should be a guide for academia? In the end, after I left academia, I decided it was a little of both.

Even after I left academia, the fusion of the nostalgic world and philosophy for me was so intense that often I felt I needed to forget philosophy just so I can live into a new world, free of the emotional space from the teen years. Because for me philosophy and that nostalgic world were fused, often philosophy seemed not to free me into a new space of being, but actually tie me down to a past world which I no longer needed. Whereas I am a philosopher seemed to liberate me in my teens and twenties to pursue my nostalgic world, later on I am a philosopher seemed to keep me tied to that same nostalgic world even as I was outgrowing my attachment to it.

If philosophy hadn’t become an outlet for my nostalgic world and I went to college filled with my sense of nostalgia for an I don’t know what but which makes me feel at home, what would have happened? I might have gotten a good education as I did. Have a family as I now do. A home in the suburbs, as I now do. But perhaps might be filled with a sense that the social world I am in is somehow all wrong, controlled by the wrong people with the wrong interests, and that the nostalgic world I have been seeking is still out of reach. And that perhaps these other people, so different from me in race, class and education, but who are also looking for a similar nostalgic world, with a similar emotional outlook, might be on to something. That perhaps with them I could finally be open about my nostalgic emotions and the world they seem to open up, and together we might do something. Make a difference. We can share this feeling of nostalgia and also not just feel it, but bring it about and create anew that world I have been wishing for but couldn’t articulate, the world I yearn for but can’t talk openly about. Maybe left to myself I might feel overwhelmed by my own nostalgia, as if the nostalgia was a mere subjective emotion. But together with them I can feel that the nostalgic world- so full of goodness and really only goodness and oh so misunderstood – is worth holding onto and standing up for.

I don’t know how we can engage with extreme Trump supporters so there isn’t more violence. We can’t just talk to people wielding guns and nooses. Self defense and the law are essential. But perhaps one thing we could do is let go of simplistic stories, which make us feel safe and good, about their motivations or what it is like to be them. Holding them morally and legally responsible can go hand in hand with trying to understand them a little more through their eyes. Not to the extent of excusing them or even agreeing with them. But just enough to understand them better and to see some reflection of oneself in them. To be wrong they don’t have to be wholly other. They can be a different version of us had things gone differently.

Mimetic Culture, Fascism and Spirituality

The Canadian cognitive scientist Merlin Donald, in his book Origins of the Modern Mind, suggests there are three stages to human cognitive development.

The first stage is mimetic culture. This goes back hundreds of thousands of years, and is rooted in pre-linguistic cultural modes of being. Before humans could speak, they had elaborate social interactions: dancing, hunting, caring for each other, burials, cooking, etc. We see a variant of this even in individual human growth. My 18 month daughter can say a few words, but has a lively cognitive, emotional presence: hugging, laughing, pointing, playing, crying, wanting and so on. As the philosopher Wittgenstein said, cognition is rooted in forms of life, and according to Donald, at the foundation of our forms of life is mimetic interactions. We understand each other not because we first understand the words spoken and then infer the inner emotions. We grasp first the emotional presence of each other – our emotional being with each other – and the linguistic understanding builds on top of that. Therapists would say the same thing.

The second stage is mythic culture. Historically this arose after the rise of systemic language use about 50,000 years ago. Whereas in the mimetic stage culture is fundamentally behavioral – a kind of moving together – once there is language, the moving together is oriented around mythic stories about the world. This was the origin of talk of Gods and seeing the world as inhabited by spiritual forces. The ancient religions we normally think about (Hinduism, Judaism, etc) are only three to four thousand years old (or younger as with Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, etc.) and are really the latter stages of the mythic culture, which goes back at least to 45,000 years earlier.

The third stage is theoretic culture. Here language becomes externalized through writing, which leads to a self-consciousness about our representations. Whereas in the mythic stage, human consciousness is seen as coextensive with the world (the structure of society and the world map onto each other), in the theoretic stage these two start to come apart. There was an explosion of theoretic culture through out Eurasia (in China, India, the Middle East and Europe) in the Axial age about 2,500 years ago, which is the dawn of modern societies as we think of them, with science, philosophy and politics. It is also the dawn of modern spirituality, where wisdom and mindfulness get separated from mythology.

Often religious people and atheists conflate mythology and spirituality, as if spirituality is a feature of mythic culture. For the religious person this means spirituality can only be found through mythological stories. For the atheist this means theoretic consciousness requires leaving spirituality behind.

Both are wrong. Spirituality as captured in the Book of Job in the Old Testament or in the Upanishads or in the Tao Te Ching is actually a consequence of the theoretic culture. The theoretic culture draws a conceptual distinction between the world and human categories. Hunter-gatherer and even early agricultural societies already knew that the world was much bigger than human beings – that is an obvious fact of life. But for them the understanding of the world beyond humans was itself in human terms. In the Axial age, this came apart – and it culminated in the modern scientific revolution 400 years ago where in modern physics the world was understood in primarily mathematical, and not human, intentional, terms. Spirituality is the interior dimension of this theoretic mode of being. Whereas physics sees the outer world as independent of human perspective, the spiritual person like the Buddha sees the inner world of the mind with detachment and as independent of human needs.


Like many, I was horrified to see the mob of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol. In terms of law, they should be held accountable. In moral terms, they are wrong. But it is worth going beyond the legal and moral domains to understand what is happening at a psychological level. Not an individual psychological level, as in each person who stormed the Capitol should see a therapist. But at a socio-cultural-psychological level. At the level of the mimetic-mythic-theoretical forms of our society.

What is America? For white nationalists, America is a white, Christian country. For others, America is a land of liberty irrespective of race, religion, national origin, etc. Like many, I think the latter is right: that is the America I want to see, and the sense in which I am an American.

It is hard to have a debate about this disagreement because debate presupposes a shared mode of thinking of America. The people who stormed the Capitol are holding onto mimetic and mythic forms of America they grew up with, and which they see the theoretic conception of America as displacing. They don’t want to see America defined in an abstract way as something independent of its historical mimetic and mythic culture – which identified America with white people.

The trouble for the Trump supporters – whether they are white, brown or black fighting back against political correctness – is that the founding of America was itself rooted in the theoretic culture. The Founding Fathers were resolutely Enlightenment thinkers, who brought the modern, scientific, rational perspective even to politics and culture, and in the process helped create a new, theoretic concept of the nation. For Hobbes, Locke and Kant, and for Washington, Jefferson and John Adams, the nation wasn’t an extension of a people organically tied by historical, cultural bonds. That would be an entirely mimetic conception of a nation. Nor did they think of a nation as bound by a shared religion, as in a theocracy. That would be a mythic conception of a nation. The Founding Fathers were trying to get away from such mimetic and mythic conceptions, for they saw a nation as a new type of social organization: one in which people gave each other freedom to have their own mimetic and mythic cultures. This is naturally not possible if the very idea of America was rooted in a particulat mimetic or mythic culture.

The founding of America was not unique in this way. The modern concepts of nation in England, France, the Netherlands and so on were being reinterpreted in precisely this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. And it happened with Germany and Italy in the 19th centuries. And Russia in the early 20th century. And with the colonized countries with their freedom in the mid 20th century.

This is why there is such a deep link between fascism and fantasy – or between fascism and conspiracy theories. In Germany, the Third Reich was supposed to be an extension of the First Reich of The Holy Roman Empire from the 9th century and the Second Reich of the unified German Empire in the late 19th century. On Hitler’s telling the problem was the cosmopolitan, globalist Weimar Republic after WWI. But the problem is actually much deeper. It is that the concept of Germany which Bismarck unified was already deeply influenced by the modern concept of a nation-state. What Hitler was projecting was a fantasy of a Germany where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic conceptions of Germany all line up. In effect, a modern, technologically superior Reich for the next thousand years which also keeps entirely in tact the mimetic links to the past thousand years. Here both the future and the past have to be fitted into the psychological needs of the present. Like the religious fundamentalist, the fascist leader is by necessity a modern figure who has to use mythologizing and fantasy to be seen as a link to the glorious past.

The people who stormed the Capitol seemed confused – as is inevitable with a mob. Part of them wanted to destroy the place as sign of modernity, and so break the windows and doors. But part of them wanted to respect the place, and walk within the lines in the hall of statutes. They wanted to smash the globalist surface while preserving the nationalist essence. And yet the statues they have to respect – of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln – were of people who were some of the leading modernists of their time! It’s like if a hundred years from now people stormed the Capitol to preserve the ancient legacy of Obama and Bernie Sanders.


In mythic culture, the categories of the human society and the world are the same. The very stories that tell us how the world began and the nature of life also tell us who to marry and how to organize our societies. Theoretic culture shows this to be a fantasy: that the categories of human society and the world as such can come apart.

Fascism is a different kind of fantasy. It is the fantasy that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures can all perfectly align. That the achievements of science, technology and progress can be had without losing in any way the past which one loves. That if the alignment is hard, it is not because of internal tensions between one’s mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures, but because they – the bad people – are messing it up. Left to ourselves, we can grow into the future with our past intact. This is the reason the modernity symbolized by social media is essential to Trump. It fosters the fantasy of the natural extension of the glorious past into a glorious future.

Correlated with – and opposed to – the fascist fantasy is a leftist fantasy. On this fantasy, if we just let go of the past mythic culture, then the theoretic culture can provide the foundation for entirely new mimetic and mythic cultures of equality. The clearest version of this fantasy was with the totalitarian practices after the French Revolution, in communist USSR, and the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. But we can easily imagine liberal democratic versions of this fantasy. On this version, if only we changed our mimetic practices in the right way and if only we told the mythic stories with the right people as heroes, then we can create a new America where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic would be in harmony. And if we don’t achieve this harmony, it is because they – the bad people holding onto the bad past – are getting in the way.

The deep insight of Axial age spirituality is that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of our consciousness never completely align. This is not because bad people are messing it up. Or because the world is tragically flawed. Rather, it’s because when one is focused not just on the world or on society, but is self-aware of the natural flux of one’s own mind, then one sees that an uncritical desire for alignment in one’s mind itself leads to disharmony.

The way that the early scientists saw that the natural world doesn’t map onto human categories, so too early spiritual thinkers saw that the human mind itself doesn’t map onto human needs. It’s not that the world outside is chaotic while the world inside is easily understood in terms of our desires and ideals. That assumption of the simplicity and natural coherence of the human mind is what drives fantasies, be they political and personal: of course I know what I am thinking! What I want! What I deserve! What is right for me! My mind is self-luminous and I see it clearly! The only way to preserve the fantasy of my self-knowledge is to project the lack of such self-awareness onto others, and to see them as the problem.

There is another way. It is to turn the theoretic gaze not just towards the world, but towards myself, and to the inner tensions between my mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of awareness. Such self-awareness can transform not just my theoretic understanding of myself, but also my mode of being with others – and so change my mimetic and mythic modes of being.

Trying to change only the outside is like watering the garden with a hose full with holes. Becoming aware of one’s own inner tensions while interacting in the world is like watering the garden with a hose without holes.

A Living Symphony

My father’s philosophy can be divided into two broad categories: i) what he believed, and ii) what I will call his life as “a living symphony”. The latter was his core as a philosopher.

My father was a proponent of advaita – the view that all is one and that the appearances of differences we experience are an illusion. On one main reading of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita – a reading made famous in the 8th century by Shankara – advaita is the essence of these spiritual texts. Like Parmenides, Spinoza and Hegel, advaita philosophers like Shankara gave elaborate arguments defending their monist view that all is one, and seeking to explain why our ordinary experiences are misleading. My father found these kinds of dialectical debates fascinating, and would himself give arguments he had constructed.

While I was intrigued by my father’s arguments initially, over time as I became a philosophy major I found them less and less compelling. As I was becoming a professional philosopher, it was only too evident that my father, when it came to the arguments and the dialectical moves, was an amateur philosopher. It’s like he taught me basketball and as my first teacher he seemed to me an amazing player. Then I went to play on college and professional basketball teams, and saw my father more as a parent-coach who thought he could improve my game in ways my professional coaches couldn’t. “Oh, your coaches get paid a lot, but they don’t know anything. Let me tell you what you should be doing in the game!”

A few examples. One argument my father gave for why the mind is independent of the body is: “When you are dreaming, you don’t experience your body, but your mind is active.” Or an argument he would give for his monist idealism, that there is no world outside of consciousness: “Try to think of something you are not thinking of. You can’t!” Or an argument for the limits of reason: “Reason is intertwined with the mind, which is inseparable from the person’s perspective.” Arguments like these – and there are many more – were put forward by my father to explain the elaborate conceptual scheme he was constructing his whole life.

But as I studied philosophy, I came to see these arguments less as inventions or insights of my father which proved his point, but more like cultural fossils left in our minds by the millenia of thinkers who came before us. These very arguments were endlessly debated by Indian philosophers for thousands of years, as they were in the West. The first argument is a version of Descartes’ dream argument; the second Berkeley’s argument for idealism; the third a Kantian argument, or a Humean or a Nietzschean, depending on how one looks at it. In my classes I was learning the endless objections and counter-objections to these kinds of arguments. So when I went home, and heard my father present the arguments as if they were air tight in their conclusions, and assumed that my not agreeing with him was a sign that I wasn’t “getting it”, I would withdraw from the conversations with frustration.

I also realized something in those moments of mental withdrawal: the appeal of my father to me as a philosopher had very little to do with his views or his arguments. When I found his arguments unconvincing, instead of concluding that his views are wrong, I realized instead that the argumentation was not really the point.

A few days ago I was feeling dejected and mentally lost. As if my life – and indeed our world – was just one day after another, going nowhere particular, just a random series of events. It was not a matter of beliefs or even emotions exactly. Rather, it was the mood I was in. A mood of feeling like life was nothing great.

Wanting to get out of this mood, nonchalantly I opened the music app on my phone and played Beethoven. A few of his pieces went by, but my mood didn’t change much.

Then the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony started playing. It’s slow, dark beginning seemed to match my mood, and the music felt like it was not just music, but my very mood and my very being floating in the air and captured by the sounds fluttering through the room. The mood which had been slowly percolating somewhere in the depths of my subconscious suddenly seemed to have found an external expression. The music was not something merely happening out there beyond me, but was like an acoustic magnet which pulled the mood out of me, and in that process of externalization made me feel it more vividly and more fully. The swelling of the music and its subsiding into a more quiet hush, and then swelling again and so on captured the valences of my mood.

The music and my mood merged to form an amorphous experience in which the boundaries of my self and the world seemed fluid. My mood wasn’t something inside me, set apart from the physical world of mere sounds. Nor was the physical space around me just something external to me, far outside the boundaries of the limits of my skin. In my mood of dejection that was how I experienced myself and the world – as disconnected, discombobulated, inert things, just being knocked about.

But the music changed this. By externalizing the mood, and in the process shifting the sense of the world from something inert to something vibrant with the meaning of my mood, my very mood itself started to change. The slow doldrum of feeling passive and restless, like a useless cog in a broken machine, started to dissipate. By the time the movement reached its culmination into a crescendo of passionate tragedy merged with a willful assertion of life pushing forward, ever forward, breaking through its own turmoil (6:03 mark in the video linked above), my mood had shifted from dullness to euphoria. While I was moping about in the kitchen a few minutes earlier, now I was moving with vigor, swinging my arms frantically, as if I were myself Beethoven conducting the music. Of course, I am no conductor and know little formally about music. But with the gusto of someone singing in the shower, I was waving my arms and feeling at one with the music – and with life!

Life no longer seemed boring or pointless. None of my beliefs had changed. I didn’t entertain any argument in the span of the eight minutes of the movement. What changed was my experience of myself. In the mood of dullness, I seemed to experience myself as if I were just another thing in the world – one more billiard ball getting knocked around the billiard table. In the dullness I accepted that I am just such a single thing, buffeted about by the world, a speck in a world uncaring of my needs and which had no need for me.

But through the music this experience was turned inside out. I still experienced myself as a speck in the world. But instead of seeing myself from the perspective of the speck feeling sorry for itself, I was now the speck seen from the perspective of nature and so was seeing myself as a fractal reflection of that infinite nature. I was no longer a speck kicked around by nature. I was a speck merging into the grand dance of nature – and so through that merging felt not belittled by my insignificance, but overwhelmed in awe by the majesty of the world.

After the movement ended, I was carried by the new mood of grace and awe for a little while longer. Then after fifteen minutes, the visceral effect of the music dissipated and I was back into my everyday consciousness of things to do and life to continue. But the memory of the experience and its impact on me stayed with me, and helped me feel my life not passively, but with an activeness of that sense of my pulsating, liberating, open-ended relation to nature, in which I am not just a thing, not even an ego thing with desires to be met and fears to be guided by, but am a self-conscious speck capable of grasping the vastness of life beyond my passing thoughts and feelings.

This kind of experience with music is familiar. In my life I first had this kind of experience not through music, or through seeing the vastness of nature through the Grand Canyon, or through seeing the starry heaven above.

I first had it through the philosophical presence of my father. I discovered as a teenager that my father had a capacity such that when he would talk about philosophy, it was like he was entering a trance. And the effect of that trance on me was very much like how the Beethoven movement altered my mood and sense of being.

People often fall into all sorts of confusions speaking about these kinds of experiences. Words like “mystical”, “transcendental” and “the oneness of the universe” get bandied about, often I find mudding our understanding instead of clarifying things.

The simplest way to put the point doesn’t require any talk of the super-natural or mystical realms of consciousness, and it is this: some people are like a symphony unto themselves. While I needed the music of the symphony to put me in the mood of the sublime, some people are able to cultivate their mind such that they can tap into that mood through their own consciousness.

My father was such a living symphony. Like any person, he had his flaws and limits. But through it all, I was also aware that for me he was like a Beethoven symphony. It was not about the arguments, or the beliefs about Brahman or reincarnation. That was all only the external form. The deeper heart of his philosophy was the awareness he kept alive within himself, like the Olympic torch is kept lit, into which he could dip to disengage from the everyday consciousness of me vs others and to align with the deeper awareness of we are all connected.

From my teens to my late twenties my father was my guru. In one sense a guru is a teacher. But there is another sense of the term in which a guru is much more than a teacher in an ordinary sense. In this second sense, a guru is a conduit to an alternate consciousness. In this sense, the guru doesn’t just impart information or provide teachings. Rather, the guru is an extended mind, similar to how the symphony was an extension of my mind a few days ago. The guru is someone who is able to let others into his own consciousness, so that the others can use the guru’s connection to the infinite as a way to tap into their own altered awareness.

Philosophical discussion for my father was inseparable from a kind of performance. Not performance as in posing or posturing. But performance as in creating a space – as in art or in music or ancient Greek drama – for altering one’s mood and being. In discussing philosophy, my father would chant Sanskrit slokas from the Gita, and in so doing almost become Krishna himself – drawing that Krishna consciousness down into our normal, profane physical space and so turn it into a sacred space.

I cannot think of my father’s philosophy without this spatial element. Of how the energy in the room would shift when he was able to channel that spirit in him. Of how my mood would shift through his channeling the spirit in him. The chanting, the role playing of Krishna or Arjuna or Yajnavalkya, the physical and dramatic elements of the conversation – these were not mere add ons to the core intellectual argument he was giving. The priority was actually the other way around.

The arguments, the ideas, the discursive gymnastics – these were mainly, like with Socrates, the dramatic mode through which the consciousness and perspective alternating work was done. My father’s main aim as a philosopher wasn’t to convince others of the right view – though he himself sometimes mistakenly fell into thinking like that. Rather, his main aim was for himself to go beyond argument and to externalize in the shared physical space the mode of being in which our daily, ego concerns seem like a dream. The aim was to share that consciousness by opening a door to it for the other person.

This can seem a strange conception of philosophy. After all, isn’t philosophy supposed to be about each person thinking for themselves? What then is this business of merging one’s consciousness with the guru’s? Isn’t that mere mental slavery?

This question is at the heart of my struggle between my father and my professors. The deepest tension I felt wasn’t east vs west, or religious vs atheistic, etc. It was rather a tension about what it meant to be a philosophy student, and what it meant to have a philosophy teacher.

It was all too obvious that the mode of my father’s teaching – and my seeing him as a guru in the stronger sense- was in tension with modernity. That to accept that the teacher’s mind is an extension of the student’s mind – that I was able to tap into the Divine through him – was to potentially render the student into a state of permanent subordination. I was only too well aware of this pitfall, given my battles with my father. And to that extent I cherished the alternate, more individualistic conception of philosophy of my classrooms.

But the “freedom” of academic philosophy came at a cost. Yes, I didn’t have to treat my professors as guru. Their consciousness was only theirs, and mine was only mine – and we would meet, as I experienced it, in physical spaces which were resolutely ordinary and profane. The focus in the classroom was entirely on argument, and not about mood – and so certainly not about altering my sense of self or gaining distance from my ego awareness. Feeling bored by this purely intellectual conception of philosophy, I would go home eager for the existential mode of philosophy with my father, which concerned not just my beliefs but my whole mode of being.

For a dozen years, through undergrad and grad school, I lived a double life as a philosopher. To my father I seemed too focused on the intellect and not enough on the deeper heart of the issue. To my advisors I seemed too focused on the heart and not enough on the professional norms of argumentation. I was drawn to both conceptions of philosophy, but unsure of how to hold onto both. I certainly agreed that the guru conception was fraught with landmines of power and subjugation. But in another way, the professor conception was also fraught with similar landmines of power and supremacy.

To complicate matters, the contrast between my father and the professors clouded over an interesting issue: though my professors saw Socrates as their inspiration, my father seemed to me more like Socrates than my professors did. After all, Socrates practiced philosophy as being a symphony unto himself, and saw his philosophizing not in terms of conceptual knowledge he gained, but in terms of how it elevated him beyond ordinary consciousness.

Furthermore, for all of the focus on individual self-consciousness in the classroom, the Western philosophy of that very same classroom was founded on Plato’s mythologizing vision of Socrates his teacher. Plato’s Socrates is not a mere developer of conceptual arguments. He is – and here the similarity to my father jumped out to me from the first class in which I read Plato – someone for whom philosophy is a kind of performance. For Socrates arguments aren’t merely intellectual, but are the mode of drama through which to bring the consciousness of the sun to those in the cave. Plato’s depiction of Socrates is of someone who has a different mode of being than others – someone who carries his mood within himself and whose mood isn’t determined by the passing circumstances. Socrates is a performer in that mainly his aim is to disrupt the mood of everyday consciousness, and to plant the seed for an alternate way of being.

I can still hear the symphony of my father, though not exactly as my guru. For some years I worried if my not seeing him as my guru meant I was still angry with him. As if not being angry implied I should see him as my guru. But I don’t think that now.

Inspiration can come anytime, from anywhere – through a piece of music, a book, a landscape, another person or through oneself. And it can just as easily change how it presents itself. The vehicle of one’s inspiration can be ever shifting, and holding onto only one form of inspiration is futile. The only constant is the inspiration itself.

Spiritual Abuse

Abuse involves the idea of a harm done over and over again. If a person is beat up once, that is not abuse. If that person is beaten up over and over again by the same person, that is physical abuse. So abuse also involves the person being abused staying in the position where the repeated pattern can take place. If someone hits me once and I walk away from them forever, they don’t have a chance to be a physical abuser. But if I go back to them and they hit me again, and I go back again, then they are given the chance to be a physical abuser.

Physical abuse is when a person is beaten repeatedly. Mental abuse is when a person is mentally put down over and over again. Is there such a thing as spiritual abuse? If so, how does it differ from mental abuse?

Abuse is fundamentally about power. The abuser confuses their strength with domination. When they dominate another, instead of seeing the other’s pain, they see only their own strength. The abuser falls prey to an illusion, where their act of domination looks to them merely a positive, well intentioned, constructive thing – even a sacrifice on their part for what it is costing them – and the abused person’s pain looks to them merely like weakness and ingratitude.

Abuse is often possible when the abused to some extent falls prey to the same illusion – that the abuser’s domination is a positive and that their own actions are a negative which calls for the abuser’s corrective actions. Hence the abused walks back into the same situation and the pattern is able to repeat. To walk away from an abusive situation is to walk away from this shared illusion. For the abused to stop sharing the abuser’s perspective – to flip the narrative and to see oneself as strong and the abuser as weak in a deep way, and to see it is ok to leave the abuser to their delusional perspective.

In mental abuse – like between a father and a son, or between a teacher and a student – the abuser uses the power differential to substitute for some insecurity they have. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, the emotionally abusive father wants his son to be a doctor and can’t hear that his son desperately wants to be an actor. He bellows at his son, “I have sacrificed too much for you to throw it all away! You will go to med school, and once you become a doctor, you can do whatever you want.” The father genuinely loves his son, and assumes his sternness is an expression of his love. The son as well assumes this, and so is unable to talk back – for he fears that to talk back, and to assert his independence, would be a betrayal of his father’s love. The son senses vividly the unfairness of his father’s actions, but feels powerless to step out of the shared assumption of father and son that his father’s mental abuse is really not mental abuse at all, but just an expression of his love.

Spiritual abuse is when the abuser uses a spiritual identity – such as a priest or a guru – to domination the abused. When a priest sexually abuses a child, the spiritual abuse also takes the form of physical abuse. When a guru makes a follower succumb to the guru’s personal needs, the spiritual abuse also take the from of mental abuse.

Each person has a sense of a better self that they can be and that they are striving to be. In abuse this natural and transformative orientation towards personal change gets conflated with the ego needs of a person external to oneself – so that the abused hears the abuser’s voice not only as that of a separate other self, but as channeling one’s own better self. As if the abuser has a better grasp on the abused’s better self than the abused himself does. This is what gives the abuser power over the abused. As long as the abused doubts his own sense of his self-worth and his sense of his better self and looks to the abuser to help him grow, the pattern of abuse continues. And as the abused is stuck, so too is the abuser. The abuser’s sense of his own better self becomes merged with the power he holds over the abused, and without that power, he feels he has no way to gauge his own growth.


I knew my father loved me very much. I felt it all the time – a pure, full, unconditional love. But it was the very fullness of his love which made me wonder why he couldn’t understand that at times our philosophical interactions were painful to me. That what started as simple, happy conversations about philosophy had transformed into, from my perspective, a form of spiritual abuse on his part. That the way the conversations were set up started to feel suffocating to me, and that what seemed to him my continual failure, year after year, to “catch his point” was due not to my failure, but to a blind spot in his thinking. But I didn’t think this for many years. From 16 to well into my late 20s I kept “going back” to him and to those conversations, thinking that the fault must be with me, that he is highlighting my limitations and it is my ego and my faults and my inability to be “more spiritual”, “more daring”, “to pursue the Truth more passionately” which was tripping me up. That left to myself I would be stuck, and that I needed to go back to him so that I could grow.

There was definitely spiritual abuse. I can say it now without feeling guilt. But there was also something else merged with that abuse. It was a battle of wills. I was driven by the same question over and over: How is it that my father who loves me so much can be so dense to the pain he is causing me?

It took me years, but I finally figured it out. My father did indeed love me as himself. That is the key. He was unable to hear what I was saying because, in a deep way, since when he got married, he had locked away a part of himself. There was a pain deep in his psyche, which he managed to hide from himself, and even from his mother and siblings and the broader family. To everyone else he was Satyam the strong, balanced, resolute, unshakable son, husband, father, brother, uncle, friend. Like his mother, my father did not easily “show weakness” – a sense of confusion, or self-doubt, or uncertainty. It was a personality thing: no matter what happened, he was not overwhelmed.

This was not fake. It was real. He was a mechanical engineer in India, and in his 20s, due to an accident at work, he lost an eye. When his boss came to visit him in the hospital, the boss was distraught, and asked my father if there was anything he could do. My father, with a mischievous smile, said, “How about a raise?”

There are innumerable stories like this of my father, told to me by himself, but also by my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and some even by his colleagues. I saw it myself many times. When something painful happened – such as losing an eye, or losing his engineering job in America and having to work at a gas station, or dealing with health issues and chronic pain – my father was not one to externally process his emotions. Whatever fear, anger, frustration, anxiety he felt, it was processed by him usually deep in his psyche – or at most mainly with my mother, or perhaps with my brother and myself sometimes. But mostly it was within himself.

For he mainly saw any anxiety not as a reality to be dealt with in the social domain, but as a trick of the mind – an illusion of consciousness – which was to be battled philosophically in the depths of himself. He often didn’t share his anxieties or his fears because he didn’t want to treat them as real – as in, he didn’t want to give them reality in his own mind.

Conceptually, before his identities as a father or a son or husband or an employee or a neighbor, he was always engaged in an battle between himself as the universal self and himself as Satyam Vallabha the ego self. The loss of the eye, the heart attack, the loss of his teeth, the loss of a job, the loss of a career as an engineer, the pain of a family dispute, the process of aging and its pains – all these which he no doubt felt as keenly as any person does, were also for him ultimately not losses of who he was, but changing scenery and properties of the form Satyam Vallabha, and which didn’t and couldn’t disturb the pure consciousness which is beyond form.

So, as I said, my father’s strength was not a put-on, something done for show. It was a big part of him. But when I started talking philosophy with him, I started to see something else. That there was nonetheless some unresolved pain and tension within him – something which the form Satyam Vallabha didn’t really process and was himself only dimly aware of.

In Star Trek, Spock as a Vulcan is able to mind-meld: by placing three fingers on a person’s head, he is able to merge his consciousness with that of the other person, thereby having access to his memories, emotions and the deeper realms of his mind.

That is the closest way I can describe what philosophical engagement with my father was like for me. I could feel his love for him in his being completely unguarded with me. And by nature I am an empath – someone who easily and naturally feels another person’s emotions and moods, and can move in the space of that without losing my sense of self. When done in contexts of healing and intensity, I get charged by it and experience it as exciting in the way an archeologist might feel exploring a new dig.

To be presented with my father’s mind – conscious and unconscious – to explore was like discovering Atlantis. Not just because it was my father’s mind, but because the philosophical space he opened up for me seemed to unveil a whole level of consciousness which in ordinary society we don’t talk about – and where we act as if everything is done by clearly identifiable beliefs and desires about ordinary objects like cars, money, movies and families.

Part of the excitement for me was that, riddled as I was with tensions of India and America, teenagerhood and adulthood, social groups and my insecurities, to tap into my father’s sense of the Universal Self was like taking peyote and riding with the Shaman into the Dream World. The world of my fractured identities and adolescent pains and immigrant confusions seemed to fade into the mists of a lower level of reality, and so the pains of that world lost their bite and their urgency. The emotions didn’t affect me as directly anymore, as I was not just Bharath Vallabha the teenage immigrant. That was just a form of the broader consciousness of reality, and Bharath’s pains no more attached to me than that of a person walking on the street. Instead of feeling Bharath’s pains and confusions from within, as if I was surrounded by them and unable to step outside of them, traveling with my father’s consciousness helped me see Bharath’s pain and confusions from the outside – as if they were somebody else’s, someone to whom I could relate to empathy for his pain the way I might with a child than to identify with it as if it were mine.

The first year or so of the philosophical explorations with my father were pure bliss. It didn’t matter that my father didn’t talk to me about how I was coping with America, or with my high school friends. He was doing something better, more immediate, more visceral, more healing. He was helping transform my very consciousness and so letting me see that I was in reality neither Indian nor American, neither child nor adult, neither cool nor strange. That the categories of these social anxieties were deeply confused, and that there was a reality to myself and all people that went much beyond any of these categories.

It really felt like a miracle. My broader family and my school seemed to function in the world of the everyday anxieties and identities where Indian and American, white and black and brown were the terms of my realities – and in which there was no peace to be found. And I was feeling all this anxiety very intensely, even though I didn’t know how to talk about it – feeling it intensely in part because I didn’t know whether it could even be talked about. And suddenly, my father had opened, as it were, an inner gate in my mind, like Gandalf leading Frodo out of the Shire, opening into a way of seeing the world which altered my very sense of reality and who I was, and in which I could step back from my anxieties and breathe out in peace, instead of feeling suffocated by them.

And then the tensions began.


In the initial euphoria of the mind-meld with my father’s consciousness, everything seemed open for exploration. Nothing was off limits. In that heady excitement, I most probably conflated my father’s consciousness with the universal consciousness – a conflation it would take me years to unwind.

But soon I started to sense that my father’s consciousness wasn’t just a space of universal consciousness. It wasn’t all free exploration and detached bliss. There were definite spots of pain, of identification, of grasping as Satyam Vallabha as opposed to the detachment of Brahman.

Now there started to arise a curtness in some of his responses. Answers being repeated. He started to show a creeping disappointment, as if his son who he had introduced to the higher realms of consciousness was faltering and was unable to leave the lower realms. And yet to me the strenuousness of his rebuttals of me suggested that there was actually some deeper tension within his consciousness that he had not yet resolved, and which he had only instead repressed.

To see what he repressed, we need to go back to the time he was deciding to get married.

Before marriage my father was very outspoken in his family about his philosophical interests. His parents knew he was thinking of becoming a monk, though they weren’t sure how seriously to take that. But whether he was serious or not, what jumps out to me was that prior to marriage my father’s philosophical self was his public self. By nature my father was an extrovert, and he was extroverted in expressing his philosophical ideas as well. And when my grandfather was alive, my father didn’t have to think about his family role so much, and was freer to explore his philosophical interests explicitly.

When my grandfather passed away in 1970, my father, at the age of 29, as the oldest son became responsible for the family: his mother and those of his siblings who were not yet married. Even before my grandfather passed away, my father was probably drifting away from the monk path. But after his father’s death, the monk path was entirely closed. He embraced entirely the path of marriage and family responsibility.

With his marriage his philosophical interests turned more inward and less open to his family. The crucial decision for him was how to relate to his widowed mother. In older days a widow in India would shave her head, give up wearing colorful saris or jewelry, and in general withdraw from the pleasures of life. My father and his siblings didn’t want to do this and instead wanted their mother, who had a tough life, to enjoy her remaining life – especially as she was still only in her 40s.

For my father this meant that he – in a spirit of modernity and feminism – wanted my grandmother to play the role her husband, and be the head of the family. But whereas my grandfather was more philosophical in spirit, my grandmother, though very strong willed and independent, wasn’t as much. So to abide by his dharma as a son, my father started to internalize his philosophy, as something separate from his family role. He came to see being explicitly philosophical as contrary to his duties as a son.

This is the moment in my father’s life that interests me a great deal. What must it have been like to go from thinking about being a monk – the very symbol of spirituality externalized – to not just not being a monk, but to publicly in his day to day life submerge his spiritual interests to that of, as he saw it, his duties as a son?

Most people in my family would probably think this is a funny question and that I am overanalyzing the situation. And my father’s own happy demeanor would suggest that it was not as stressful for him as I am making it out to seem. But families tend to cover over the more interesting and painful emotions with narratives of “normalcy”.

My father’s life doesn’t belong just to me, but to my mother and my brother as well, and to his siblings and others as well. Each has their own story of my father, and they are entitled to it. What follows below is my understanding of his story.

My sense is that due to his submerging his spiritual interests to his mother’s dominance in the family, my father – like many a man – escaped into his work for his independence. He threw himself into his job as a production manager in a ball bearings company – his role was a combination of engineering and sales. This led to him working 16 hour days, and as part of sales, going out with clients to entertain them and coming home late at night, and leaving early in the morning again. He smoked, he drank, he worked hard and had a tight circle of friends. It was in his friends’ circle that his philosophical identity found expression. The space in which he could step back from his family and even work identities and share with his friends his inner consciousness that he is not ultimately Satyam Vallabha, and that Satyam is only a passing form of the deeper reality.

I have fond memories of my father in India: going to the movies, riding on his motorbike, looking at stars with him late at night. He was a doting, loving father. But I also have memories of my mother waiting late at night, worried about his safety after drinking and riding his motorbike home at 1am. And of fights between my parents. It’s hard to see in any of this my father the philosopher. Would a man at peace with himself be such a workaholic, spending time away from his family? Why didn’t he get a different job, one which enabled him to be with his children in the evenings, to help us with our homework, to have peaceful, simple nights of domestic happiness? Why the incessant work, work, work? And why, when he was with my grandmother and the extended family, did he disappear into reading the newspaper, letting my grandmother and his siblings dominate the conversations? There was a cultivated detachment he had in extended family settings with his family – as if being too much himself, to let out his deepest voice, would disrupt the harmony of the family.

It was a subtle situation. To assert his identity fully would be to affirm the older, patriarchal structures in which his mother would have to submit to him. His mother had already spent her life submitting to her parents and then her husband – and naturally her children, including my father, who saw her struggles wanted her now to have an independence and freedom previously unavailable to her. But to be explicit in giving up his dominant role as the eldest son would be to make himself a martyr and so make it seem as if his mother is beholden to his kindness.

What was needed was a double play: an affirmation of his traditional eldest son role, even as he was pulling from that traditional role so that my grandmother can play that role instead. In a society in which the eldest son takes over the family when his father passes away, my father had to be the eldest son and yet also not be the eldest son. He had to do his dharma as the oldest son, even as he saw that dharma in a modern perspective.

I think the way my father, psychologically, managed this double play was to conflate it with another double play central to the Advaita tradition in Indian philosophy: between the illusory world of roles and normal identities and the true world of Brahman the Universal Consciousness. He now believed that his philosophical growth was not tied to becoming a monk – in which he would give up his normal identities explicitly – but to philosophically being in the world of everyday realities. No longer would he need to give up his normal identities, such as being a son or a husband or a father. Instead, he would affirm those identities in the midst of the world and yet stay detached from them in the inner, higher realms of his consciousness.

Later in life he came to see the monk path as a cop out. As the easy way out. Where one, as he put it, “ran away from the world” in order to not be bound to it. He contrasted this with the householder as the philosopher: someone who simultaneously both affirms the normal identities and also detaches from those identities in his deeper mind. This detachment isn’t the normal detachment of resignation or alienation – for to be resigned would mean not really affirming the normal identities. No, the true philosophical act would be to assert the radical contradiction of I am entirely of this world and I am yet entirely not of this world. It is to walk that razor’s edge of consciousness of being in the world and yet not being of the world.

Stated in the abstract, this double consciousness can seem unproblematic – in fact, I think it is deeply right. And indeed, I think after fifteen years of marriage and after moving to America, my father got better at balancing the two sides. But my sense is that while in India, he struggled with this balance, and as a result escaped into his work to let out in public with his friends the embers of his philosophical fires which he had to suppress in extended family settings at home. And it was that focus on work, and the social life of that work, which affected his health.

My father never talked about any of this tension between his son identity and his philosopher identity. Of course, he didn’t. Because central to his narrative was that there was no tension between these two identities – in his mind, they were so seamlessly integrated and also compartmentalized that there was no issue of a clash, no unresolved issue to be dealt with.


But as a son I could feel the tension was unresolved for him. And it became more and more apparent as I started to feel a tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. When I tried to talk to my father about this tension in my life, he didn’t seem to know how to respond and even to really understand what I was talking about. It took me years to realize that he couldn’t help me because he hadn’t consciously resolved the issue in his own life – he had simply repressed it and moved on.

As I discovered philosophy, I initially assumed there could be no tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. After all, it was my very father who introduced me to philosophy. And as a senior in high school, the only public identity I knew for being a philosopher was a monk – and so I started to discuss with my father the possibility of my exploring that path.

I imagined that he would respond with pride that his son loved philosophy as much as he did, and that he wanted to make that his life’s calling. Even if he thought that is not the best path, I thought he would understand why I was drawn to the path of pursuing philosophy publicly.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My father was incensed at any talk of the monk life. He said it was a way of running away from life; that it was archaic and old fashioned; that it misunderstood the true nature of philosophy, which was not about external identity but about inner detachment.

These were all points I could understand and even appreciate. But what I couldn’t understand was why he seemed so angry about it, and so disappointed in me for even taking it seriously. He started to suggest that my desire for being a monk was a sign of my attachment to social identities, and so was a sign of my not being really philosophical.

He was right that for me philosophy was inseparable from my social identity. After all, thinking about philosophy helped me think about how I could relate to my family and friends, to India and America, to the ancient and the modern worlds. In my external social world I saw everywhere dichotomies and tensions, confusions and seemingly irreconcilable divisions – and thinking of myself as a philosopher gave me a feeling of wholeness, unity and peace, and a sense of armor I could wear through the external world of divisions.

Did I really want to be a monk? Not really. I had no idea what a monk life involved. It was mainly a place holder for a public identity as a philosopher. One which was soon replaced as I discovered in college the public identity of a philosophy professor.

When I told my father I was going to major in philosophy, he had all the usual concerns of parents: what will I do with it, and what kind of job could I get? But beyond these practical objections, he constantly levied the philosophical objection that by seeking a public identity as a philosopher, I was turning away from the deeper philosophical truths in the name of surface recognition.

The force of his objections always seemed to me disproportionate to the situation. Why was he so adamant that seeking a philosophical identity in the broader world was a mistake? I came to see many years later it was because it is what he told himself when he gave up the monk path to be a family man. It is how he reconciled his dharma as a son with his dharma as a philosopher – by saying that the philosopher is the one, like Arjuna in the Gita, who does his family dharma without attachment. I think my father told himself that if he became a monk, he was being attached to the social identity of a philosopher, which meant he was not being detached enough.

My father would have been consistent if he didn’t take on the role of being my guru and introducing me to philosophy. If he didn’t talk philosophy even with his nuclear family, that would have shown that he had completely detached himself from every social identity, and was being true to his conception of philosophy. But by talking to me about philosophy – and indeed by wanting to pass on his philosophical worldview and insights to me – he was blurring the boundaries of everyday identities and philosophy in the very way he was warning me not to do.

But, all told, I am glad that he opened to about his philosophy to his wife and children at least. For while some people might be so quietist and Tao like that philosophically they dissolve entirely into their everyday identities, I think my father was not temperamentally such a person. In this, he and I are similar.

Over time, the tension between my father and me increased, but then later on came to our own peace. For him our philosophy conversations were part of an inner world entirely set apart from the everyday identities we had – in which roles such as parent, child, husband, philosophy major and so on were set aside. But for me our conversations were very much a part of the everyday world in which I was talking to my father, while navigating my philosophy education at the university, in a society coming to grips with its social and philosophical troubles. For many years I was convinced that my father might be right that in a deep way I was wrong. Insofar as I thought my father as my guru and so saw him as my better self, I felt I was failing him and also thereby failing myself. But ultimately I couldn’t accept his path as if it were my path as well. I had to follow my own path.

When later in his life my father started talking philosophy with the extended family, I was relieved. I saw it as him finally breaking out of the self-imposed restrictions he had placed on himself when his father passed away, and where he could express himself fully. When he worked on the talks he would give to the family and when turning those talks into a book, he threw himself into it with a passion and a zeal which to me seemed like a spring which had been kept pushed down bouncing out with pent up force.

When he imagined that his life path would work for me because he thought I was an extension of him – and when I accepted that and assumed I was an extension of him – there was pain and abuse. But over time he and I came to be at peace with each other, able to appreciate what we had in common and also appreciate our differences. By not forcing myself into his mold, I was able to step into my own life and thereby appreciate the particular contours of our lives.

For many years I was afraid that if I didn’t see my father as my perfect guru, I would lose him as a father and a guru, and would myself become lost in the process. But actually when freed of the assumption that I was supposed to be a copy of him, I was able to appreciate him as a father and a guru in a new, less stressful light, even as I continued my own, unique path.