Instead of “Philosophy is X”, try “This is the kind of philosophy I find interesting.” In place of essentializing, affirm your own preferences.

Doesn’t this make philosophy subjective? Just a matter of whatever anyone wants it to be? What if one says, “Philosophy is cooking”, or “Philosophy is gibberish”? Surely, these are objectively wrong?

Why surely? And why do we need it to be wrong, let alone objectively so?

I don’t breathe because breathing is good. If someone says, “Breathing is over-rated”, do I need to prove him wrong to feel confident in my breathing?

I breathe because I do. I don’t end my life because I don’t want to. To live I don’t have to show dying is wrong. Or Suicide is a mistake. We don’t choose by eliminating every alternative. We don’t have to.

In order to think how I want, I don’t need to fit it into a category first (philosophy, analytic philosophy, religious philosophy, spirituality), then defend that category against objections (why “religious philosophy” is not an oxymoron), and then – having secured the foundation – go on to think that way.

Courage is required to say: I do this because I want to. I am open to objections, but not constrained by them. I give others the same freedom I take in pursuing my path. I wish well those who choose a different path. And when we try to reach the same audience, may each try their best – and people respond as they will.

Future of Philosophy

I read two things today that show in stark relief how things have changed in academia.

The first is autobiographical reflections of Hans Sluga, a philosophy professor at Berkeley. Sluga writes of how he went from post WWII Germany to Oxford to study philosophy, and from there to teach philosophy at London and Berkeley. Around 1960, when he is studying philosophy at Oxford and embarking on his academic career, it must have looked like academia was going to keep expanding as higher education opened up to the masses (to people from lower economic classes, women, minorities, etc.)

The implicit assumption being of course that the expansion of higher education means the expansion of brick and morter colleges. That is, more and more spaces in the world would try to emulate Oxford, Harvard and so on, or emulate anyway less pretiguous physical colleges. That, looking 100 years down the line from 1960, one would see a blossoming of residential or at any rate physical universities and colleges. Certainly the expansion of colleges in America in the 50s and 60s probably gave this impression.

The other thing I read is an interview with Scott Galloway, in which he predicts: “In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000. What that means is the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. What it also means is that universities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. “

Galloway’s prediction is that there is going to be an confluence between big tech companies and the elite universities, resulting in MIT@Google or iStandford, or some such. These big tech-pretiguous college accrediting behemoths will dominate higher education, as through online teaching the pretiguous schools will have enrollments in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Tier 1 colleges will thrive and get richer in the long run and tier 2 schools will adjust and survive. But most brick and morter colleges will disappear, or be doing something very different from liberal arts education.

If Galloway is right – and I suspect he is – then the expansion of higher education will not only not mean the expansion of brick and morter colleges, but actually mean the significant closing of most such colleges. This is something most people could not have forseen in 1960. Or in 2000.

What does this mean for philosophy in academia, and also for philosophy in the broader society?

Right now some of the big issues in academic philosophy are seen to be broadly issues of diversity and global philosophy. That is, how to do philosophy that is more diverse and also open to the world’s traditions?

These important issues recently have been raised (say, in the last thirty years from 1990 – 2020) broadly under the old assumption of the brick and morter future. That is, the framing of the issue has been roughly: “Philosophy done in departments in 1900 or 1950 or 1980 were eurocentric, patriarchial, etc. How can we change the departments so they are more pluralistic?” Implicit in this framing is a kind of reimagining what could have happened in, say, the Harvard philosophy department in 1960. As if we were accepting the material conditions of the 1960 department, but thinking how it could be better intellectually, socially and morally.

But this way of framing the issue is soon to become moot. It’s like trying to think what diversifying the work place would look like while assuming a Feudal framework.

My sense is that a lot of the diversity philosophy stuff has hit a kind of intellectual dead end. Because they are trying to fit the diversity questions into the outdated model of academia.

Many of these questions are going to have to be reframed into the kind of academic world that Galloway is predicting. So the questions of diversity and opening of horizons into world philosophy will have be analyzed along side questions of how academia is entering a wholly new stage. The two sets of questions can’t be dealt with on their own, but have to be tackled together. I suspect that will open up a new exciting logical space of views.

And these two sets of questions – of diversifying philosophy and digitalizing academia – will have to go hand in hand with a third set of questions about philosophy outside academia.

When the expansion of mass education was assumed to go along with the expansion of brick and morter colleges, there was a natural link between the professor and the graduate students: the hope that the graduate students in turn will become professors at the one newly built physical colleges.

But if it turns out that in the near future (10 or 20 or 50 years) philosophy – like most of the humanities – will mainly be taught in the top 50 universities in the world, that means there is no hope even that most graduate students can live a life like their professors. Which in turn means that in the future the expansion of philosophy can’t mean the expansion of academic philosophy.

Academic philosophy as a job is going to become an extremely niche profession, available only to a very select few people. Those few people (say, 1000 around the world) might reach and teach millions of people.

The teaching philosophy to the millions is great. I love it. What are those millions going to do with the knowledge they gained in the classes? Less than 1% of them can hope to be a professor with a similar reach as their professor.

This sets up the future I am looking forward to: philosophy is going to be awakened at a vast rate through mass education, and there won’t be even a fantasy that the creative juices unleased in that way can be absorbed back into academia.

Which means: there are going to be new creative non-academic avenues for engaging in philosophy in the broader society. The end of most brick and morter philosophy departments will mean the flowering of a new era of philosophical salons, or other grass roots modes of doing philosophy. And since these modes could tap into the same kind of reach to the masses through online activity, it can be a real counterpoint to the work within academic philosophy.

In this future, philosophers who are not academics can push the future of philosophy in a way that academics might not be able to, and vice versa.

Happiness and Trauma

Yesterday I wrote about the part of us that is unconditionally happy. I didn’t write this (nor do I normally write) because I am deeply in touch with this part of myself. To the contrary, I write because I am so often not in touch with the unconditional happiness within me. Writing is a way for me to reorient myself towards that space. A way to tell myself and help me see and feel that wisdom is real, that it is alive within me, even if I so often feel lost, anxious and adrift.

Today was a day when the anxiety was particularly intense. I got triggered by something in an interaction with someone (doesn’t matter what or who exactly) and it created a sense of panic. Something like, “There it is. It’s happening again. I am going to be taken advantage of. I am going to lose out, while the person I am interacting with and others around me will get what they want. I need to protect myself. I need to fight for myself.” I hate feeling like this. I don’t actually end up “fighting for myself”. What happens instead is I freeze mentally. I get a panic attack which reverberates in the back of my mind all day. I don’t like being aggressive with people, nor do I like being submissive. I feel I have been submissive too much in my life, and I don’t want that anymore. And yet the alternative of being aggressive or fighting feels off putting, and perhaps just scary. Too much like things are out of control. I prefer control. And clarity. People getting along and taking care of each other.

I love to take care of others, as in think about their needs. It comes naturally to me. It always has. And yet I easily get upset because I feel others don’t think about my needs. Like I am being taken advantage of because of my kindness and goodness. Or maybe it is just because of my need for getting along. Others seem more ok to think about themselves without worrying about how it effects other people. I have never been able to do that. It always felt like a struggle to be selfish. Not that I am a saint. I mean rather that my default mindset is to begin with thinking, “what is the fair thing for everyone here?” My own selfishness – which is intense of course – never feels like the last word, or the first word, to me. The first word begins with a “we” and the last word ends with a “we”. This is not a virtue or wisdom. It is just my temperament or personality.

It’s one reason I love to discuss ideas and emotions – usually the mix of ideas and emotions. Engaging with a person or people as we navigate our collective “we”. Because for me the “I” – even my sense of my “I” – comes in the midst of a “we”, I am often feeling half empty or alienated, as if left to myself I am but a shell of myself. To understand myself, it feels like I have to understand a we that I am a part of. And so in interactions with people I long to find that we.

Yet often I have found that my hope for a we in this sense becomes dashed, as it seems like most people I interact with are happy to be simply “I”s who feel they are perfectly well defined without me. That they don’t look to me to better understand themselves and to be a better them the way I feel I look to them in order for me to be a better and more full me.

What it feels like is that I am doing the trust exercise with another person (you know the one where one person falls backwards and the other person catches them), only to have the other person turn around and walk away as I am falling. I fall down. Upset. Hurt. And I want to yell, “You should have been there. How could you walk away? You need to do X….” Yet all the other person seems to hear is not my desire for a common we but rather my trying to control them according to some magical, mysterious sense of how things “ought to be done.”

As I was saying, today I had another episode of this. It’s familiar to me. I have had it with colleagues. With family members. With friends. With my spouse. As I have seen this happen over and over again – me feeling somehow wronged by the others not listening to me enough and not reciprocating enough – I have come to see that what all these situations have in common is my own expectation and mode of being. Perhaps there is something in the way that the “I” and “we” concepts have been intertwined for me for so long that I keep having the same tension over and over again in different parts of my life.

As I was in the midst of this episode of anxiety and feeling out of control – almost like a panic attack – I thought of my post from yesterday. And I thought, “Yes, there is right now a part of me that is unconditionally happy. That part of me isn’t touched by this nausea I am feeling or sense of being trapped. Yes, there is that part of me. I can sense it. I can remember it. But I can’t really feel it.”

And I couldn’t feel it. The unconditional happiness felt like a medicine I had forgotten at home, and I couldn’t take it now that I am on the road, far from home.

I closed my eyes and tried to find a sliver of that unconditional happiness. But most everywhere I was feeling only the flames of the emotional unrest I was caught in. What I wanted was conditioned happiness – for the world to be a certain way, for other people to be different, for the we that I so long for to be palpable in my life so that I can rest assured within it, and can relax in the world that I belong in.

And then I had a thought, a flash of a memory, so dim that I could barely remember it, but full of reality. It was me playing cricket in the local park with my friends when I was 10 in India. I was set to bowl, and looked to my friends who were fielding and ready to catch the ball the batsman would hit. There was a we! A joint activity in which we were bound as one, in which I could hardly separate out myself from my friends, and themselves from me, bound together in our childhood in a way that is possible so easily in childhood.

As I thought of that Bharath, at ten years old, carefreely focused entirely on that game, I sensed how fragile that memory was. For in only a year or two I would never play cricket again. Never experience again that unthinking bond with other kids, and with a park and a land, and that street (oh that street where I grew up!), with our house at the other end of the street from the park.

A year or so later my father would have a heart attack. My parents would leave for America so that my father could get better medical care, and my brother and I stayed back for two months with other family members. Then after those two months, my brother and I boarded a plane to come to America. As my father was recovering from his surgery in New York, and he and my mom were trying to get jobs and get used to America, my brother and I went to live with other family members in Pittsburgh for four months. After that, we moved to New York, happily back with our parents again, settling into our new life.

But how much had changed in those six short months! The possibility of my father not surviving his heart attack or his surgery. A move from India to America. Not sure I ever really understood any of it at the time, at the age of 11. I moved in a daze. Just as I imagine my parents and my brother did in their own way. And every time I passed a park and say kids playing a funny game called baseball, which I didn’t understand and which I couldn’t play, I sensed the memory of the past that was now lost – the memory of the cricket game and the unreflective we that it provided.

Why did this memory come to me as I was searching today for my unconditional happiness within me?

I think because what lies between unconditional happiness and conditional happiness is trauma.

By “trauma” I don’t mean that my childhood experience of immigration was somehow particularly traumatic. In comparison to many others, it is pretty mild. It is a walk in the park compared to people dealing with memories from childhood of sexual abuse or starvation or loss of their parents or dealing with disabilities or not having loving parents and so on. Compared to all that, moving from India to America in a haze of concern for my father and our family is not all that bad.

But, for all that, it is part of my psyche. It is what I have to deal with. It is one of the things which convinced the young, child Bharath that happiness can be lost – that it is conditioned.

Children live in unconditional happiness without trying to. They do so mainly because they live mainly in the present. And also because they haven’t yet developed the memory of the loss, which ruptures the growing consciousness into the world as it was and the world as it is now, with the awareness that what was lost in the world as it was might never come back again.

As this awareness of loss starts to grow (for some probably as early as 2 or 3 – I was a late bloomer at 11!), they start to build their lives and sense of self from the happiness that they can construct. This is the beginning of conditioned happiness – also the beginning of what we call individuality or self. Personality is nothing other than the highly particular ways that children start to construct their conditional happiness. So much so that as the children become adults, these ways seem synonymous with who they are. I am joking of course that I didn’t start to do this until I was 11. What happened at 11 is just a particular intense series of experiences. But I started constructing my personality, like every one, well before then.

This construction of personality has a fatal limit. There is no guarantee that the conceptual and emotional infrastructure that was started to be built at 2 or 5 or 10 will do the job well when one is 18 or 35 or 60 or 90. In fact, as people grow what makes the conditionally happy itself starts to grow and change and evolve. And so it becomes ingrained in us that to be myself is to be conditionally happy – that is, to have the things that I want and to avoid the things I don’t want.

This sets the stage for adulthood. Millions of people basically in a sprint to be conditionally happy, vying with and against each other for the resources and recognition that enable conditional happiness. We can no more all be happy than all the animals in a jungle can be happy together. Even more: we can no more be happy than an addict can be continually happy. For that is what ultimately adulthood is – addiction to one’s conditional happiness. The excitement of getting what one wants, the sadness of losing it, the anxiety of withdrawal, the anger of being confronted, the high of hoping for a new day and a new possibility, and so on.

The anxiety I was feeling today was the screaming of the addict not getting his hit. Being confronted with the loss of the conditional happiness I want to take for granted – as what I am owed, what I deserve, what is supposed to be happen.

In the midst of that, of course the unconditional happiness feels far away. Because the me that craves the conditional happiness long ago gave up on unconditional happiness. He long ago accepted that he can never go back to that playground again and play cricket with this friends in the afternoon with their boyish sense of hope and that all things are possible.

In the face of my conditioned happiness not being met, it feels like adding insult to injury to suggest that I could be more than conditionally happy – that I could be unconditionally happy. Isn’t that like telling a starving person that though they lack food, they can have the fulfillment of having eaten in the finest restaurant! The mind wants to say: “No, that is a pipe dream! No, that kind of happiness is an illusion. Reserved at best for children. The most I can get is conditional happiness, and that is what matters!”

But perhaps there is a way to get to that unconditional happiness after all. If conditional happiness accepts the past traumas, and tries to build anew after the fall of those traumas, then unconditional happiness lies on the other side of those traumas. If we refuse to face up to the traumas, only conditional happiness seems possible. But if we face up to the traumas and relive them without fear, then we can tap back into the unconditional happiness.

Unconditional Happiness

“We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions. We’ve been taught to place our happiness in them.”

Anthony De Mello, Awareness

Here is the simplest definition of wisdom: being unconditionally happy.

As De Mello says, this is very counter-intuitive. Because it is natural to think – we are even encouraged to think – that happiness must be conditional. I need the things I love to be happy. If the things I love and want are bad things, then I am seen as a bad person – if I want drugs, bloodshed, to make others look bad, etc. If the things I love are good things, then I am seen as a good person – if I want peace, cures to diseases, to help others.

One sense of wisdom is knowing how to want the good things as opposed to the bad things. So that I want not to spend all my time belittling others or looking out only for myself, but that I want to focus on cultivating my talents or seek to help others or pray or meditate. If I can just do the latter, then I will be wise. So this thought goes.

But on this conception, wisdom itself is conditional. On my seeking the good things and avoiding seeking the bad things. Or on my gtting those good things rather than being stuck in a rut in making progress on the good things. If this happens, then I am fated to be unwise. So wisdom in this sense forever has a sword hanging over you to see if you are really being good, or if you are sliding bad into being bad.

In my experience, this is how most people think of wisdom. As a beautiful fruit to be gained as long as I can get things right. And so an internal pressure builds on getting things right, and maintaining that. This is how I thought of it too for a long time.

But I have come to think this is not really wisdom. It’s wanting to be a good person. It confuses being a wise person with being a good person. As if wisdom is something we need to grab hold off and not let go, lest we fall back into the morass of being bad.

It’s a simple enough distinction, but it cuts to the heart of the issue. Seeking to be a good person brings with it emotions of potential guilt, anxiety, nervousness – what if I don’t succeed? what if I don’t make it? what if the conditions I need to be good fail to obtain? what if I fail to be good and wise?

For wisdom in a deeper sense these doubts are entirely out of place. Its happiness is unconditional.

It is just there within us, untouched by the passing conditions. It never leaves us no matter what happens, or what doesn’t happen. Like an eternal flame it burns within us, oblivious to the winds and storms and sunny skies of life’s ups and downs passing by.

This kind of wisdom isn’t gained through vigorous planning. “I will first eat right, meditate, read the right books, be still, not get pulled into arguments with people… Then I will be with the eternal flame, I will catch it and it will be glorious.” The planning makes the happiness conditional – and so the unconditional happiness slips out of the hand. The more vigoriously you plan, the less it seems visible and graspable. Because you are treating the unconditional happiness as a special kind of conditioned happiness – as the best kind of conditional happiness. And so as you plan to get all the conditions just right, you feel the flickers of the happiness, but the essence of it – its unconditionality – feels out of grasp.

So what then: one just has to wait for a miracle to strike for me to just become unconditionally happy? No! That waiting too is just another condition.

Don’t wait. Don’t plan. Don’t think what you will do now so that later you can have wisdom and be serenely happy. Not even if the later is a hour from now or five minutes from now. Not even if the later comes after reading great books like The Bible or The Gita or the works of Emerson or Eckhart Tolle or Marcus Aurelius or Confucius. Not even if the later comes after, you swear and promise, you will try really, really hard to be the best you that you can be, and will get up on time and meditate and do all the right things needed to be wise.

Instead of waiting or planning, and thinking about how glorious that future moment will be when the conditions become just right for the light to dawn and for your soul to be opened to bliss – instead of waiting and planning, do something else right now.

Right now, in this instant, there is a part of you which is unconditionally happy. Find that part of you and focus on that. Worries about your income or your health or your loved ones or the coronovirus or politics and the fate of the world might be overwhelming your consciousness. But still, if you notice it, there it is: in a corner of your mind, just observing all of your worries, without judgment, without worry, without condescension.

A big part of you might be petrified with worry or buzzing on a sugar high or worried about the interview tomorrow or happy about how the date went tonight. These ups and downs loom large in your consciousness. But if you just notice, there is a part of you that doesn’t care how the interview goes tomorrow, or is indifferent to the how the date went tonight. Even if the concerns are as big as something horrific happening to you or to a loved one, and as exciting as winning the Nobel prize or the lottery – there is a part of you that just doesn’t care that much one way or the other. That part of you isn’t moved too much one way or the other.

It can be surprising to call this part of you unconditional happiness. Normally depending on the circumstance, we call it something else. If something bad happens to a loved one, then I might feel that part of me that is unmoved is callous or uncaring, selfish or emotionally distant. If something great happens and yet a part of me is unmoved, we might then call that part of me jaded or detached, pompous or holier than thou. Either way, when really painful or really happy things happy, we look on that part of us that is just observing with disdain, as if it were belittling our emotions and our situations. “I just lost my job, you sanctimonous prick! Feel something! It matters!” Or: “I am finally getting that promotion I have been waiting years for! Now my kids can go to a better school! I don’t care what you say: it matters! I am not going to be numb like you!”

Of course one can be a santimonous prick and not show concern. Or be numb even when happy things happen. We are familiar with those parts of us. We can be pricks and assholes, refusing to show sympathy. We can be numb and ironic, raining on happy events with a dour realism.

But we confuse these parts of us with the unconditionally happy part of us, as if any part of us that doesn’t go up and down with our conditions and emotions is lacking in life. And we distrust it. This is what De Mello means by, “We don’t want to be unconditionally happy.”

We trust wisdom when we think of it as a conditioned good – when wisdom itself is like the rest of our emotions. When we think of wisdom as the hard to grasp fruit, the very image of it as unavilable to me now is soothing – as if thereby that wisdom and my day to day concerns can co-exist. As if wisdom doesn’t have to remove me too far from the things I like and the things I hate. Wisdom as a future, conditional good I might get down the line if I am good feels ultimately non-threatning to my conditioned happiness now.

In contrast, that part of me right now which is unconditionally happy feels like it is an alien part of me. Something I can’t quite understand or fit into my narratives about where I am going in my life. I worry that it might be too intense or too flighty, too serious or not serious enough, too wise or not wise enough.

In the name of looking for the wisdom I hope to find tomorrow or a year from now, I push away from my mind the wisdom of unconditional happiness which is within me. I say, “That part of me – I don’t what that is. It’s too strange, too mysterious. Too unhuman. Too disconnected from my life. Too above my life. That is not what I am seeking. It will be the death of me and all that I hold dear.” This is our fears and our anxieties, our conditioning and our habits talking.

We have to do just one thing to be wise: make friends with the part of us that is unconditionally happy. It is there right now within you, as you are reading this, and right now within me as I am writing this. It is within us at every moment. It is unconditionally within us. Just there. Just happy. Just serene. Just observing. All of our awareness of life and the infinity of the universe is within that part of us.

In reality, it is not just a part of us, but the whole of us. We imagine the conditional happiness is who we are, and the unconditional happiness within us is but a nagging, confusing speck which we can do without. But as we open up to that unconditional happiness within us – as we let it into our lives and our habits, into our family and our jobs and our interactions with our neighbors and our politics and our ups and our downs – we find something magical and wonderful.

The unconditional happiness isn’t just a part of us. It is us. It isn’t one part of our consciousness. It is the essence of our consciousness. That all along when we tried so hard to find just the right kind of conditional happiness, what we were looking for was the unconditional happiness.

Disenchanting Political Philosophy

A key issue in current political philosophy is that between ideal vs non-ideal theory. But I would suggest a more productive contrast is between enchanted vs disenchanted theory.

Ideal theory concerns the justification of a political state under idealized conditions. The most famous recent version is Rawls. His question was, “What makes a society just?” His answer was that a society is just if it meets certain conditions – which we can reflect on without thinking about our actual political conditions. Rawls isn’t concerned – at least in his philosophical work – with how to bring about such a just society. His concern is: what would it be for a society to be just, irrespective of whether we can get there or not? Of course, you can take the ideal theory and try to bring it to bear to particular actual problems. But the starting point is with the ideal theory.

Non-ideal theory eschews the notion of an ideal starting point, and begins instead with current, actual unjust conditions, and is interested in changing those. It can involve a great deal of intellectual, theoretical work to understand the nature and causes of the existing, unjust conditions. But it’s starting point isn’t the skeptical question such as “Can a society be just?” or a metaphysical question such as “What is a just society?”, but rather the practical question, “How can our society become more just?” In this sense non-ideal theory is seen to be intrinsically political – as in, it aims not only at understanding, but even more primarily at changing our society. The most famous version of this was Marx. But other versions can be found in feminism (say, recently, Kate Manne) or critical race theory (say, Charles Mills), or recent work on fascism (say, Jason Stanley), and so on.

For the non-ideal theorist, ideal theory seems like pie-in-the-sky abstractionism, which, by ignoring the actual lived conditions of injustice, end up reenforcing those injustices. For the ideal theorist, non-ideal theory reduces all questions about the nature of justice to questions of political activism – as if only questions raised in the midst of activism can be appropriately good. Here is a crude analogy, but perhaps not far off: ideal theorists are like metaphysicians, while non-ideal theorists are like logical positivists claiming that metaphysics is the bain of actual, rigorous scientific knowledge.

Much as the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theorists can seem exhaustive, there is an important assumption that often the two sides have in common. They share what I will call an enchanted conception of political solidarity.

I am using “enchanted” here to echo Weber’s sense in which the pre-modern world was seen to be enchanted – that is, with the world itself filled with meaning and purpose. In the enchanted world we didn’t have to create meaning in life, or morality – those truths were assumed to be as much a part of the world as the sun and the moon and the stars, out in the world which we simply experienced and could take for granted. On the Webberian story, modernity broke this spell, leaving us with a world in which at most we have to create our meaning and root morality in ourselves. We can do it in a rationalist, Kantian way, or maybe an existentialist way, or a communitarian way, etc. Or if we can’t do it, we are stuck facing the void, staring into the abyss of nihilism.

By an “enchanted conception of political solidarity”, I mean the idea that we are simply given – or can take for granted – political solidarity. That it is obvious who the “we” are in “we the people”.

Many people have an enchanted conception of their nuclear family. They know exactly who their parents and sibling are, and who aren’t. Many people, however, don’t have such a conception. If they are adopted or have absent parents, etc., it might not be entirely obvious or clear even to themselves what “my family” picks out. For a person with an enchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” resonates with a clear sense of who is in and who is out – and so makes questions of “Is my family good or bad, or modern or traditional, etc?” seem kind of clear, even if hard to answer. But for a person with a disenchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” doesn’t automatically seem clear at all – and so even before addressing the question, “Is my family good or bad, modern or traditional?”, they are left wondering “who am I talking about in the first place? Who are the people I have this relation with, and how can I experience that more?”

In ideal political theory, when one asks, “What makes a society just?”, it is assumed that we already know who is a part of that society. Usually it is the trivial answer, “the members of the society”. It’s as if societies are natural kinds, with clearly defined boundaries of who is in and who is out, and with a sense for each other as “members of the same society”. The question the ideal theorist is interested in then is, “How should those people relate to each other such that their society is just?” In ideal theory “those people” is not defined any more than that. It is just an abstract sense of the people as members of the society.

It’s a genuine question – raised by the non-ideal theorist- whether much sense can be given to a question when it is pitched at the searing abstraction of “a society” or “the people of that society”. Does such abstraction give us insight into contested notions of justice and inequality, or does it abstract so far away that it seems to talk about difficult topics without any of the pain? For the ideal theorist the abstraction is an insight. For the non-ideal theorist, it is a dodge.

To avoid the dodge, the non-ideal theorist claims to “keep it real”. No fluffy notions of a faceless we and complacent assumptions of a shared solidarity, as if men and women, whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals, etc. can take for granted a common bond. “No!”, the non-ideal theorist says. “There is no such common bond yet! For the institutions of the past failed to treat the people fairly. What we need to do is to rectify the injustices of the past before we can even raise questions of our shared society as such. Otherwise talk of “our” is just another way of reenforcing the power imbalances of the past.”

Thus the non-ideal theorist is critical of the ideal theorist’s enchanted sense of political solidarity. But the non-ideal theorist falls into his own form of enchantment when he tries to describe the lived political reality. For feminists, “women” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity; as if just in virtue of identifying patriarchy, an invisible bond of solidarity had enveloped all women. Similarly, for marxists, “the workers” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity. And so on.

The trouble here is obvious. If “the people” as used as an ideal theorist is too abstract and removed from lived reality, so too are words like “women”, “the workers”, “the immigrants”, “the African-Americans”, “the colonized”, etc.

We might ordinarily say something like “The British were cruel to their colonized subjects”. But that doesn’t mean that there is any obvious group such as “the colonized”. In fact, “the colonized” only makes sense in relation to, not a specific group such as “the British”, but in relation to “the colonizers” – where that includes the British, the French, the Portugese, etc. Now we are off on the path of abstraction. And it is a tricky, complex issue what kind of abstractions or general claims we can make about what “the colonizers” did or how “the colonized” suffered.

This is one reason why so much of non-ideal theory, though it aims to be resolutely grounded, is still so theoretical. Though it presents itself as engaged and concrete in contrast to the abstractions and vagueries of ideal theory, non-ideal theory ends up being something far less than promised . It is just slightly less abstract theory. But now with the added confusion that terms like “women”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc. are treated as concrete terms. Which they are if they are contrasted to the works of Rawls, Kant or Hobbes. But by any normal understanding, these are not at all concrete terms, let alone terms which denote recognizable or established political solidarities.

In the face of the question, “Why don’t all women recognize their shared political solidarity?”, or the similar question for the disabled or the global south or the colonized, etc., the non-ideal theorist has to fall back onto a just so story, which is extremely abstract: that it is part of the work of the patriarchy, or the structures of the able bodied, or the colonizers, etc. to render the obvious solidarity unobvious. A metaphysical abstraction created an enchanted sense of solidarity, but then a political story gets told for why the solidarity isn’t more vividly felt. And the more the political story gets told (about patriarchy, colonizers, etc.), the more the sense of solidarity gets propped up.

I am not denying the reality that historically women were treated unjustly, or that the colonized were brutalized, and so on. But I think it is an open question whether accepting those realities and trying to change it requires the further, enchanted idea that there are obvious and special bonds of political solidarity among “the victims”.

Here some might fall back to ideal theory. For in rejecting the metaphysical abstractions of ideal theory, non-ideal theory seems to end up with a balkanized sense of political solidarity. “We the people” is diluted into “we the women”, “we the men”, “we the blacks” and “we the whites” and so on. Non-ideal theory was supposed to get us to be more concrete so as to focus more on the work of creating a just society. But instead of concreteness, we have gotten only a different kind of abstraction – which helps in some ways, but which fails to inspire an overall sense of “we the people”. At this point the ideal theorist steps back in, saying that the Rawlsian abstractions weren’t a dodge, but reflect our true, shared political solidarity.

We can avoid this see-saw between ideal and and non-ideal theory by giving up on their common assumption of the enchanted conception of political solidarity. Contra ideal theory, the best starting point for political philosophy is not the atemporal question, “What makes a society just?”, but rather the first-person plural perspective question, “How can we make our society more just?” But contra non-ideal theory, this first person, engaged, practical question is best addressed not just by asking how to rectify the injustices of particular groups, but by asking what holds us together at all. The more we face up to the fact that we live in a disenchanted political reality, the better we can work to change things.

Peace on Earth

If I was given the option, “Your life in exchange for peace on Earth?”, what would I choose?

Is there anything which could possibly justify choosing myself? Could I live with myself knowing my life is coming at the cost of the continued pain in the world? What would I do with a life I held onto at such cost?

A different, less extreme choice: peace on Earth not for my life, but for my fears? If I was promised there would be peace on Earth if I gave up being afraid, what would I do?

It would be silly for me to then hold onto my fears. The reward is great – peace on Earth. And what am I giving up: my life, my loved ones, my ideals, my hopes? No , just my fears. If I accept that I will not be afraid of anything or anyone, under any circumstances – if I make that the core of my being – what harm is coming to me? Why would I possibly choose holding onto my fears over peace in the world?

But I do everyday choose my fears over peace in the world. Is it because what I am imaging is a fantastical scenario? No one after all can promise me that there will be peace on Earth if I give up my fears. No one can even tell me what peace on Earth would mean. Is that why I normally feel ok to hold onto my fears?

Ok, let’s try this. What if I gave myself a choice: Peace within myself for giving up my fears? The more I resolve to be unmoved by any fear, the more I will be at peace. I will then be a person of peace.

Peace on Earth increases the more there are people of peace. People who choose to give up their fears in order to be at peace. So if I give up my fears, I contribute just through that to increasing Peace on Earth. It doesn’t create peace on Earth. But it enables me there to be more peace on Earth. Just by my acting on my choice for myself.

The normal delusion is that my fears help me survive, and a peaceful world is one in which I get to survive as I am. Hence peace on Earth requires not that I give up my fears but that I can rest assured that my fears will never come true.

Hence normally peace on Earth is not something I help create, but which has to be created for me. The world has to be made safe for me. By those with power like the politicians, the intellectuals, the priests, the rich, the celebrities, the Gurus, etc. Peace on Earth in this sense is the world’s promise to me that as long as I am basically a moral person (don’t kill, steal, etc), then I will be made safe in the world.

Of course peace on Earth in this sense is a total impossibility. There can be no peace on Earth if the people get to remain fundamentally mediocre, even if generally moral, beings. Human fighting results not necessarily from grand themes like evil, but from a resistance to transcend ourselves. Show me two people getting into a fight and I will show you two people embracing their emotional mediocrity.

Being moral is good. Better than killing and stealing. But it is also just an early stage of human potential. When the moral person asks himself, “Do I want to act beyond what morality requires?”, then new possibilities for human flourishing open up.

Peace on Earth isn’t a matter of everyone being moral. It is a matter of people undertaking the inner journey into their psyches and uprooting their long held fears and anxieties.

That is why we cannot imagine what peace on Earth would look like. Not because we can’t predict others’ behavior. But because we cannot see through – even in our own case – to the end of the tunnel of our own transformation.

Choose the self transformation. Choose the uncertainty of changing. Choose giving up fears. Then new visions of peace will blossom within you and from you.

No Fear & No Hate

It’s done. The knot which held together many of my conceptual confusions is loosened. I see clearly.

Reality is so simple. Like a sky clearing after a thunderstorm, awareness of truth shines after years of tormented reflection.

“Does God exist?” This is a confused question. Theists and atheists are caught in the confusion. Thinking answering “yes” or “no” is the way forward.

The way forward is to see beyond the question. To see the limits of the question. To see how much there is to experience and grow and do beyond the question.

What one believes about God is neither here nor there. It needn’t point to anything deeper. One can be a devout believer and miss the transcendent experience of feeling God’s love. One can be a serious unbeliever and be clueless about the rational nature of our lives.

Doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe. Or even what you do or don’t do. Thoughts and actions are only by products of a deeper way of being. Focusing on the by products can’t lead to the deeper reality.

You don’t get the by products right first and then get to the deeper reality. You leave the focus on the by products behind, and then through your being the right thoughts and actions arise on their own. And in a way you can’t predict.

It is not a limitation of the mind that you can’t predict the path. Just as it is not a limitation of the shell that it has to break for life to emerge.

The rootedness of life isn’t found in thought or in action. It is found in a way of being.

That way of being is characterized by two basic features: no fear & no hate. A total detachment from the fears and hates within yourself.

Be fearless. And be hateless. That is transcendence. That is most rational mode of being.

It’s that simple.

Keep an eye on the fears/anxieties/nervousness and the hate/annoyances/irritations without identifying with them.

Do that and you will understand more about God’s nature or about reason than any book or seminar can teach.

Awaken into the realm of your own being which is beyond your thoughts, identities and ideals. It is a vast ocean of consciousness waiting to be experienced and explored.

See you there.

Upheavals of Nature

A few years ago, while my wife and I were taking a walk at night, I was overcome with grief. I sat down at a nearby bench and was crying. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I said something to the effect of “It’s going to be so horrible. There will be so much pain, so much suffering. The catastrophes are coming and we as a society are not ready for them at all!” I had a sense of a coming apocalypse and it frightened me.

Was that an overreaction on my part? To the contrary. It was entirely rational. It was the first time it had really sunk into me that the nice middle class lifestyle which we take for granted is not sustainable. That the future won’t just an upward escalator of material progress for all. That behind the material achievements and even the scientific intellectual insights, we as a people still have a basically primitive consciousness, not far removed from the ancestors of thousands of years ago.

That in fact we as a species haven’t yet caught up to the great awakenings of consciousness of the sages of the past from two to three thousand years ago. We are surrounded by better technology and greater material well being than what the Buddha or the Upanishadic sages or Lao Tzu or Jesus Christ or Socrates had. But we haven’t yet tapped into the evolution of consciousness which they achieved. Our very material well being – which we haven’t earned individually but is something we have been gifted by our recent generations – covers over our emotional and spiritual stuntedness. It hides our inability to truly transcend our egoistic impulses. The ideals of an Ivy League degree or a BMW or a fancy salary or the good likes of a model give us the sense of sophistication – when all the while underneath the degrees and the material goods and the sophistication is the same limited and ego driven thinking of past ages.

Worries of apocalypses is nothing new. Every century has its share. Perhaps every generation at some point feels the world as they knew it is about to end. But this fact doesn’t render worries of apocalypses as mundane.

Rather, it is each generation’s chance to confront the limits of material well being and ego awareness, and to see that greater flourishing requires greater transformation of our modes of consciousness. That ultimately computers, medical care, high rise apartments with fancy gadgets – all these are still just tools. Or at most transformations of our basic cognitive modes of being. But they don’t on their own change our deepest fears or anxieties, distrusts or pathologies. Only we can change those through a heightened awareness.

The fear of the coronavirus, for example, is rooted first in fear of what will happen to me, my family, my life patterns, my society – basically, life as I know it. The anxiety is real. And rational.

But if I step back for a moment from my personal anxieties of what will happen to me, my family, my job, my city, my country, and even yes, my world – I am confronted with a stark reality which normally I ignore or forget or bury, and which the pandemic doesn’t allow me to ignore, forget or bury. And that is awareness of my own insignificance – of this limited being called Bharath with his wife and child and family and income, and tastes and desires and hopes and ideals – in the broader cosmos.

Is my life worth more than an ant’s? Or more firm and guaranteed? More important than the life of the chicken I had for dinner last night or the animals that are becoming extinct in the light of humanity’s “flourishing”?

The fantasy of normal life is that things are basically right and just. Even when thinking of racism or deep injustice, the thought is just around the corner that if only we changed some things, true justness and goodness in society is achievable. As if with some changes, deep though they are, our lives and the meaning of humanity would be etched into and merged with the meaning of nature as such. As if nature itself is calling out for our felt next step to be the next step of the cosmos as such.

Catastrophes obliterate this fantasy. Yes, there is racism. Yes, there is mass inequality. Yes, there are the hungry and the homeless. Yes, there is so much for us to do as a species. But catastrophies force us to confront the basic reality that the doing of these things – all good and important and essential – aren’t written into the very essence of nature. Rather, they are important because they are important to us. They matter because they matter to us.

That doesn’t make the mattering less important. It is mattering enough. We want to survive and thrive as a species because we want to. Not because nature will keep its hurricanes and heat waves and forest fires and diseases and cathastrophies at bay for us. That is the brute reality which catastrophies force us to confront.

This can be depressing if we assume that our lives mattering must somehow be affirmed by nature itself protecting us – as if we were its special children. So when nature seems to turn a blind eye to us, as if it were unmoved by our mass deaths the same way we are unmoved by the mass deaths of other species, it can provoke existential anxiety. As if we are abandoned. Uncared for. Where is God in all this?

God is on the other side of the fantasy. On the other side of seeing our own limitedness in the vastness of nature and being strong enough to pick up our courage and work to retain and create our world.

The truth and meaning of our lives isn’t determined by living or dying. By being in good health or bad. Hence the coronavirus can’t rid our lives of meaning. It can take my life, my family, change society, force radical transformations. Some changes will be unfortunate. Some for the better.

But what remains is the same basic choice we face, a choice which something like the coronavirus forces us to confront more consciously. And that is: do we live with the fantasy of our specialness in nature, a fantasy which resists seeing our place in the cosmos with a straight face, or do we live with a continual awareness of our limitedness and so with greater appreciation each moment for our fragile and yet beautiful lives in the cosmos?

This is not a silly philosophical issue which we can ignore. It is crucial for our lives. For the more we are able to live in harmony with nature and with our own place in it, and bring that awareness not just to “saving the planet” but to each and every human interaction and to using it to get beyond our own fantasies of daily life, the more we will survive.

Those changes in consciousness add up and a hundred years from now, our descendants – no matter what their economic or family or cultural situations, no matter if there are robots or aliens living among us – will be more rooted and secure because they will then be more conscious and mindful in their living. And in their dying. And in their confronting the pleasant times and the harsh times, the ups and downs of life.

Yes, future generations will need and have greater techonology to deal with the changing tides of nature. But they will also need a basic transformation in modes of consciousness to retain those techonologies and to try not to kill each other in the process. Techonologies will transform our consciousness. But there is a lot for us to do to transform ourselves in the process as well. To change outdated modes of habit and forms of consciousness, and to grow from within to a higher light of awareness.

Beyond Fear

If the elephant of my mind is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my mind. – Shanthideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

I have so many fears.

Fears about what will happen. To me. To my loved ones. To the world.

But alsostrange as it seems – fears about the past. About things that happened which I regret, which I fear I can’t change, which I am still angry about.

Every day, every thought, every action – there is a fear, even a swarm of fears, hiding behind it.

The fear breeds restlessness. Anxiety. Exhaustion.

Within the ocean of fear, there are small islands of forgetting the fears. I call those islands “happiness”. But at any moment the islands can get flooded by the ocean and the forgetfulness can be eroded so that I am back facing the fears.

All this is unconscious of course most of the time. Or at least subconscious. Or in the background of consciousness. Ordinary consciousness is defined more by the forgetting of the fear and then the remembrance of it – the oscillation between the two. And hoping the forgetfulness wins out so I am not devoured by the fears. But the fears peak out in every interaction where there is the potential for the elephant of the mind to run amuck and stampede over my peace.

Normally I just accept all this as the reality. That the world is a fearful place. Filled with things, events, people, possibilities and eventualities which are frightening. Unnerving. Which rob me of my composure.

All these fearful things are like wild animals roaming in my world. If I can avoid them and survive the day without getting scratched or bitten or mawled by them, that is a good day. But if I do get attacked by them and they take a bite out of me, and I am caught in the grips of the fear, that is a bad day.

Shanthideva – as he states in the quote at the top of this post – suggests my ordinary way of thinking is a delusion.

He says the fears are not really out in the world. Rather, they are products of my mind. They are created by my perception of things.

That means I am not the passive experiencer of fear. Someone who is bombarded by fears from outside myself. Rather, I am the cultivater of the fears. They exist only in my mind, and only as long as I don’t realize that.

The mind creates the fear and the projects it onto things in the world. Then the things seem intrinsically fearful, as if it is the nature of the things in the world, independent of me. As if in fearing those things I am simply responding, reacting and am confronted by the nature of things as they really are. The possibility of losing the job or losing the marriage or my life being meaningless or my goals not being fulfilled or my house needing repairs – all those appear as just things to fear, and when I fear them I am just tracking the truth. That’s how it feels.

In this ordinary way of thinking, there can be no life without fear. The world is full of fearful things. So only a delusional person can live without fear. The normal person accepts there are fearful things and tries to avoid them. Even if it means constantly worrying about it.

Shanthideva flips this around. He says there can be a life without fears. Not because one has mastered all the fearful things in the world. But because he sees that his fears are actually caused by his mind. That they are projections of his mind to begin with.

So if he can be self aware of his mind when it does the projecting, then the illusion of the world being fearful can’t get a grip.

The normal person, in response to fear, tries to control the world. They assume their mind is helping them by making them afraid so that they can see what is really happening and can then act quickly to avoid it. The normal person (like me normally), even as he is fed up with the fear, deep down is grateful for it. He thinks his perception of the fear is helping him navigate the world better. To avoid the lions and the tigers waiting for him the world.

Shanthideva’s point is that the implicit gratitude for the fear is the root of not being mindful. It is to accept the mirage and the fantasy that the mind is playing over us. So that we fail to see that it is the mind itself which is creating the fear in the first place.

So the job goes. So the illness comes. So the house needs repairs. Yes. These are just events. Like it’s raining or snowing. Or a rock rolling down a hill. They are neither fearful nor wonderful in themselves. They just are.

The fear comes from what my mind adds to the events. Only the mind adds the fear so quicklyin a fraction of a fraction of a second – and so smoothly that, like an audience member seeing the magician pull a rabbit out of the hat, the ordinary person falls for the mind’s trick that the fear is actually in the events.

To be mindful is to keep the focus on the tricks of the mind rather than on the world where we are caught by the minds projections. To focus on the mind is to catch the mind in its act of doings it’s tricks, and so to not fall for the tricks.

Watch the mind as it tries to project the fears onto the world. Then the projection fails. The things in the world then just are, and not colored by the projection.

All along I am the one creating the fear. Unaware of this, I am also the one consumed by the fear. When I pay attention and am mindful of how the mind goes through the mechanics of creating the fear, I see fear for what it is: just my own projections onto the world. Knowing I am creating the fear, I am no longer consumed by it.

Who is Bharath?

Am I Bharath?

The question isn’t whether really I am John or Ram or someone else instead. It’s: am I a particular person designated with a name?

There is a voice in me which identifies itself with Bharath. As Bharath. This voice flares up when it is happy or sad or annoyed or bored. It says “This is great” or “This is awful”.

When I stand back and try to observe this voice, it says, “What are you standing back from me for? I am you. You are me. I am Bharath. That’s you! These good and bad things that are happening aren’t just happening to me. They are happening to you! Don’t feign detachment or as if you don’t care. As if you are different from me. You aren’t different. You are me. All these are your thoughts and concerns and issues. You might be growing bald. You need to pay the mortgage. Your daughter needs more things. Your pride and happiness is at stake. It’s not just me, some voice that cares about all this. I am you! You are Bharath! You need to care!”

Here is an existential reality: should I believe this voice or not?

Where does the voice come from? It acts as if it was always just there. But the voice is nothing but the internalization of other external voices. “Bharath is like this.” “Bharath is like that.” “Bharath is good.” “Bharath is loving.” “Bharath is serious.” “Bharath is judgmental.” These things others say coalesce into a single voice when those things are accepted.

So the voice that says “I am Bharath” is nothing but a product of others saying “You are Bharath and you are like this and this and this.”

And who are these others saying this about Bharath? Satyam, Subha, Gautam and other family and friends and neighbors and colleagues and strangers?

But then who is Satyam? Is he real? Well, there is a voice there too saying “I am Satyam. I am like this. I am like that. This is good for me. That is bad for me.” Is that who that person is, just that voice which identifies with being Satyam?

So there are all these voices which claim they are real selves, as real as can be, and they are all defined just in terms of each other. Every voice is just an internalization of what all the other voices say about it.

That’s all well and good. But what does that have to do with me? Is that who I am? Just a node in a matrix of social selves, defined with respect to all the other nodes?

Or am I the awareness of this dance of the nodes in the matrix? The awareness which doesn’t get its identity by what the voice says about itself. The awareness which observes the voice and its screaming and its laughter and its pain, and observes even the voice’s claim to be identical with the awareness, and still doesn’t identify with the voice.

The awareness is the cosmic awareness, which sees the voice as just the pebble on the beach that it is. And seeing the pebble as just a pebble, one among billions and billions of other pebbles, the awareness doesn’t – and can’t – identify with the pebble. How can the ocean be the same as a pebble?