“It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” — Arcadia
Leaning on the balcony rails, gazing at the tall trees hiding behind the buildings ahead, I remember asking my mother as an eight year old, where the sky ended and the earth began. Fast forward twenty years of drifting across cities and countries, I find myself asking her the same question as we stare at the dark clouds merge into the Eastern seafront of the city.
That innocent question about the shape of the horizon to which my mother had laughed and replied with a non- sequitur has found a new meaning now as we come to the end of the year 2020 — the year that witnessed the great pandemic interspersed with regular storms, earthquakes, cyclones, forest fires and floods. While the horizon then etched the limit of my sight; with now acquired philosophical parlance, I relate it with the gap between our knowledge and reality, opening up the link between epistemology and eschatology. The question remains the same, while the horizon while teasing for a resolution reveals a severance to be mended by transformation and change perhaps in metaphysics.
I had ordered my first bunch of face masks in mid November, 2019. They arrived on time — neatly packed, nicely arranged in different colours, albeit, without any warning about what was to follow in the coming months. When asked what had made me buy them way before the global pandemic hit us, I humbly responded — my intuition and maybe on second thoughts, my ever present unconscious. There is no dearth of doomsday prophecies and fantastic end of the world scenarios, but mine was a subtle premonition — a direct experience you may say of knowing something about a future event before it occurred. As I ensconced myself in my room in the coming months, it was as unreal to me as it was to anyone, to see every human starting from the local vendors and security guards that one passes by on a daily basis to people around the world throng the streets and TV screens wearing all sorts of masks, much like the ones I had bought a year back.
I had all the symptoms before the actual ones started appearing — I had been agitating about the state of the world like a raging hysteric, making jokes about unnamed diseases, popping anti — depressants like its candy and socially isolating myself for past two years since I had returned from London having completed a stressful Master’s degree. Since dwelling in language, I had always felt that there is something absolutely fundamentally wrong about the way we live. Growing up, I had only learned how to articulate the gaps and the holes I could see. So, when it hit us, I was partially glad, if anything, it only revealed the truth about our modern global civilization — inequality, walls, isolation, alienation and digital communication and made us stare starkly at our own limitations. But, I did not imagine the scale of this. I certainly had never known what a pandemic is. This was the sort of stuff one read in history lessons and were things of the past, never to happen in this century.
Covid-19, lovingly called the Coronavirus has hit us pretty bad. Most activities are disrupted and we are confined to our homes, advised to maintain social distance from other specimens of our species — connected only through audio visual communication apps — most prominent among them Zoo(m) that allows us to interact with each other though square boxes in a grid. Resigned to peering through these digital windows of human zoos, we are facing each other with bewildered eyes and uncertain futures. We have now accepted ‘the new normal’, sitting at home, wearing masks, washing hands, using sanitizers and munching on whatever the news tells us. Time is suspended, we’re all in a limbo, nobody knows when we’ll go back to our old ways of being in the world. Science fiction enthusiasts and historians tell us that it’s not something unexpected, and to be better prepared for there’s much more to come — this is only the beginning. We are at the mercy of scientists sitting somewhere in the laboratories who might find a vaccine at some point which will be distributed across nations and its people at its own sweet time. Till then, this is our life, home-bound, staring into multiple screens, facing the biggest unknown — our own mortality.
While we are sipping on ginger tea, staring out at empty streets and following our doctor’s advice on building immunity, let’s zoom in on what the cause of this catastrophe is. In scientific parlance, it’s called a zoonotic spillover categorized as a natural disaster. Coronavirus (virus with a crown), measuring a few nanometres is non-sentient matter with no agency that when comes in contact with a living body cell, uses it as a host to multiply and propagate itself. It’s the most basic form of life — a packet of protein — genetic material (RNA) that mutates and becomes alive with a living host. Originally residing in animal species in forests who have built immunity over centuries — in this case possibly a bat or pangolin being sold in the wet market of Wuhan, China — it has now jumped to human species and has promiscuously transported itself around the globe, following the very complex and connected routes of global capitalism in its very versatile and active host — the human body. We’re confronted with this tiny matter that oscillates between life and death, and is invisible to the human eye. Something so minute holding tremendous power — enough to halt modern civilisation — ticking bomb to human arrogance and hubris.
Going through many restrictions, lockdowns and social isolation is tiring and can easily let us fall into despair. We can live in denial, move into our new normal ‘digital lives’, mark 2020 as a ‘bad year’ in our calendars, accept our fate, and sit with folded arms in wait for the vaccine OR we can use this time to look at what was wrong with us before and the world, learn and completely change the way we looks at life on this planet and the way we live in the 21st century. While this virus may look like an enemy to our individual life, but from the perspective of broader human history, I’d say it is a friend who has knocked our doors in our burning house. There was nothing normal about our society before this pandemic hit us.
Sure, we can crib about how the health care systems are not up to the mark, and complain about authoritarian governments enforcing new laws, but in all the cacophony and chatter, if we shut down and listen carefully we would hear the cracks in the engine revealing the faults in our system. There is something telling about the unpredictability of this pandemic, how it arrived without warning — but, now that it is here for good, let’s listen to its message and learn from our predicament.
Although it has affected people differently and divulged the ever widening class divide, two main things that have happened — We’re for once compelled to look into, nay acknowledge the existence of microscopic scale of matter and other things that are not visible and perceptible to the human eye and senses. The other — the collapse of the public/private space and work from home scenarios that will go on for the foreseeable future. Our lives are reduced to the basics of human survival — family, home, fire, food etc. While there are massive socio-political repercussions — recession, loss of jobs and livelihoods, war- like situations, I’d like to focus on my micro purview — things that are not in the news, not in the numbers and statistics of the counter.
Consider this lockdown static as a pause in our lives and appreciate the silence and stillness that has come with it. Now that we are working from home, and dead time has been reduced with all the online meetings, let’s once in a while look outside the window and hear song of birds who have reappeared on our horizons and window sills, notice the colour of the rising and setting sun and the changing shapes and brilliance of the moon.
The word “crisis” comes from the Greek verb “krinein,” meaning to choose, to decide between alternatives. Throughout history, pandemics have been a time for change, and we haven’t experienced this time before in recent modern history since perhaps the end of two wars in 20th century.
I propose we start from blank slate — as if we know nothing and consider my appeal for a paradigm shift in our thinking — to create possibility of creating value and meaning outside the structures that drive us — institutions that give rise to class, caste, gender inequalities that pervade oppression, violence and injustice. These structures that now govern us or that we have willingly created for ourselves are not going to last and need to dissolve and give rise to others. The transition, however must be smooth and peaceful. If we have to survive, we have to reorder, re construct and relive our futures and build new power structures, new families and new ways of working. We have to understand our situation in terms of whole systems, shift from myopic worldview and create for long term, using our imagination. It is also time to rethink the relationship between human and non-human world, human and nature while we are working on human-human connection in the digital world.
“Do we really want what we say we want?” — Mark Fisher
Fisher’s last words were still ringing in my head while the doctor was diagnosing my illness. “It’s a serious case of depression. I’m afraid you wouldn’t be able to work but don’t stress, your problem is not yours alone — it’s a personal, political, planetary problem of futurity.” My professor suffered it, so are millions of young people who are stuck in this atrocious system.
It was the peak of London winter, I was still getting used to harsh winds and dark clouds in the daytime. On a cold Monday morning of the New Year, I thought I even saw snowfall and rejoiced for a bit. Before rushing for the morning lecture, I quickly checked my mail to find out that Mark Fisher, a teacher at my university whose class I had been auditing the week before had passed away. The timetable still showed that the class was on. Not sure whether I had read it correctly, I texted my friend who was equally taken aback.
The last glimpse I had of him was in a black coat and hat passing by the reception. I also vividly remember his last lecture in which I was sitting right next to him while he was reading out the names of students to mark the attendance for the day — I could see his hands and voice shivering while he struggled to pronounce my name right — that Indian girl in a yellow jumper staring hard into his sunken eyes. When I responded with an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, he smiled while throwing his fist on the table, half-joking about how the setting that day was like a scene from Kafka’s Trial. I had not known then that what I was experiencing that day was a man in his last days sincerely trying to show some direction to a bunch of young people. He had titled his seminar ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ — instilling a ray a hope, a plea for change, in his rather bleak view of the modern world.
‘Capitalist Realism’ is a theoretical framework he had termed to understand our contemporary society and the ideology and value system that runs it — a sense that there is no alternative to this political economy and that there is no way out. With post-capitalist desire he showed us how Capital has inserted itself everywhere, it’s even in our food and bodies and everything we desire. He urged us to expand our political imagination and to yearn to desire for something beyond, and that victory could be achieved even if in the confines of current structures. He also mentioned how previous measures to engage in a counterlibido to capitalist desire failed in the 60’s and 70’s counter-culture because it didn’t think about long term plausibility. He also nudged us to stray away from Left melancholy and think that we already possess what we need to escape the confines of. His death was definitely a momentary event in my intellectual development and I was determined to find answers that I was very sure did not lie in academic institutions. What I could sense was a failure of contemporary left and protest movements for any change. Fisher suggested to dig deep in our histories to resuscitate ‘lost futures’ and make impossible happen. To create futures where there are none. He wrote — “the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
Can ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ be created outside this ‘reality’ matrix that we have created for ourselves? The purpose of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but strive to change it. Any change or transformation would need patience — it’s not easy to change permanently such deep, long-lasting structures that have caused fear, misery and pain for the many.
“I want Truth, Beauty and Justice, and most of all peace and happiness.”
The doctor smiled.
“Silence is the only phenomena today that is valueless. Everything else between the earth and the sky including air, water and fire have been absorbed the world of profit and utility.” — Max Picard
As I sit here isolated in the room of my suburban apartment, I can hear slow ticking of the wall clock, distant chirping of birds and the occasional sound of empty local train in the background that has stopped running for the first time in its entire history of plying from one end of the city to the other. I haven’t stepped out in months except the daily quiet morning walks. I have lost memory of the city streets, how they turned, the buildings, how they rose, the noise and clamour of commuters rushing to and from work, the colours and sounds of the bazaars and the rhythm of people in motion. For now, there is silence, the kind that allows time to reveal its mystery and power.
The current economic system that structures our global society has been posited to originate at a certain time in history. While there have been many postulations, Weber argues that the emergence of this way of working and living has a relation to religious belief and can be attributed specifically to the Protestant Reformation in England in the 16th century. This way of production went hand in hand with Enlightenment values and the rise of modern scientific and rational thought that believed in achievement of ideal human values manifested in advancement of our species through linear progress using all kinds of technology as a tool. This rational pursuit of profit for its own sake called the Protestant ethic was originally tied to pursuit of a calling and has now found home in the disenchanted atheistic materialist world by overcoming all kinds of otherwordly beliefs, rituals and practices. Through centuries of imperialism and colonization of space, time, mind and body, this western style of modernity came to dominate the entire globe and gave rise to modern myths and structures of the nation-state, corporate capitalism, mechanistic science, civil society, consumerism along with freedom, progress, fame, romance, and money.
There is no doubt that this wonderful system in which we are existing in the present and gives identity and meaning to the modern man manifests itself in hierarchical, phallocentric, and Eurocentric world views. It is based on Cartesian rationalist traditions that uses master instrumental reason as the logic of the market and public sphere that can club the whole of natural world into a single word “nature” and then claim to control its unpredictability and use its materials as “natural resources” for industrial development. Wild nature is worthless waste — an abomination in the eyes of capitalists, because it is a space of resources that has not yet been subjugated to the law of value.
‘Cartesian dualism’ is based on separation of human mind which has an independent substance from everything else that exists only in relation to it. This puts rational man at the centre of the universe, the crown of creation at the top of the chain, himself fragmented and lacking, brutally separated from and discontinuous with other species and the natural world. It justifies itself as the logic of colonisation and creates a sharply demarcated and devalued sphere of otherness that leads to oppression and domination of everything that is below this ‘reason’ — black and coloured people, women, indigenous tribes, animals etc.
This thought based on dichotomy, difference and duality creates separate categories of nature /culture, humans/animals/plants, mind/body, mind /matter, consciousness /reality, self/other, reason/emotion, public/private. Rationality of the economic system and scientific method exists by backgrounding of nature and denial on interdependence — nature is seen as setting stage in the foreground of which the drama of human civilization plays out. It is defined homogeneously and negatively with respect to humans, lacking human qualities and therefore not intelligent. A certain kind of masculine reason is valued over nature that includes the emotions, the body, physicality, sense experience, passions, animality, the primitive or uncivilized, the non- human world, as well as the sphere of irrationality, faith and madness.
This created an atomised autonomous Self existing in the realm of separation of subject and object, observer and observed, life and death, existence and non-existence, life and environment. Any damage to nature doesn’t directly affect the Self. If the origins of the modern world are religious, if work was supposed to give meaning and salvation, no wonder money is worshipped now. Even in the old organized religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism that are taking new form in the far right nationalist politics — human life’s destiny is separate from other species, soul separate from nature. While this view has been going for centuries, and man seems helpless walking into his own oblivion in the face of ensuing climate disasters of which this pandemic is just a preview — the most basic of theological question is once again valid and relevant now — How do we find meaning in our work and lives? What will save us? What chances now exist for salvation in ‘end of times’?
At this moment, when science is struggling for answers to this disease and complex climate problems, is there maybe a time to look to philosophy and religion that can give our answers or help us imagine or even create a new world. Is there a metaphysics that can lead us to see and exist beyond the rationalist materialist paradigm? Is there any primordial knowledge that we posses that exists before we separate from our mothers and come into the world of language and dualism, something we already know but we are not aware of it yet that will help us face this century head on in 21st century, when we thought we had left wars and crises behind?
I found answers to my spiritual crisis in the ancient Indian philosopher — the Buddha.
“One can only stare as much at death than at the sun.”
Golden morning light falls on my table as I cross another day of the calendar and prepare for the morning run to cope with the repetitive and undifferentiated days. Unnerved by news of rising cases and deaths, my mother stops me suddenly with horror writ on her face, explaining how cruel this disease is and warns me to not touch the lift buttons with bare fingers. When asked about the reason for her early morning paranoia, she goes on to explain her fear of death — the family is not even allowed to see the body of the deceased. I hug her with a knowing smile and wear my mask and gloves for her relief.
Death is public matter again — something so inherent in life and yet buried and hidden. The question of death and immortality are the starting point of any quest for knowledge. When one does not understand the biggest unknown, one lives in fear of it and that fear generates ignorance which in turn becomes the root of all evil. Reflection on mortality need not necessarily be morose and gloomy — it can be accompanied with joy and bliss and help give meaning to our lives. This knowledge of birth and death lies prior to any division, before language creates separation between subject and object and therefore, taken up by religious discourses.
When Buddha’s followers pressed him for answers to abstract, theoretical questions he refused to answer. To speculate about mere theories when there is suffering in the world, he said, is like speculating about the origin of a poison arrow while it is still lodged in one’s flesh. “First remove the arrow! Questions about origins can come later.” The teachings then dealt with the concrete reality of suffering first — that of birth, ageing, sickness and death that no sentient being can escape.
In the modern society, death is seen as an ending of human life, which is inevitable yet mysterious. It is a void, terminus, whose only meaning is that there is no meaning. Life ends when death knocks on the door, the body lies supine, the heart stops beating, and there is an end to breathing. The body that experiences pleasure and pain is decomposed, and the immortal soul is released. It is followed by mourning and loss and other rituals usually linked to tradition. This understanding separates body from soul, death from life and is discontinuous from other living beings. It leads to unconscious efforts to deny and transcend death which in turn causes the death drive to be repressed.
More life affirming account of death would be to not separate death from life. They exist together, mutually dependent and inextricable. Death happens every moment of our waking life. Creation and destruction happen together, in the cells of our body and in the universe. Here, the significance of human life lies in unity and embeddedness with nature and the universe as a whole. Death is also continuous with past and future generations and not seen as an end of individual life. One dies and arises multiple times like waking up from a sleep.
This way of thinking in a non-dual manner means to neither ‘be’, nor ‘not to be’ — implying neither of the two extremes, not denying but encompassing both and taking the middle way. To exist in a way that takes the middle path between the extremes of being and nothingness — to not cling desperately to the former and dread the latter. To transcend our instinctive desires and fears and establish ourselves in the freedom of ‘emptiness’ — between substantialism and nihilism, negation and affirmation, existence and non-existence, eternity and annihilation. Rather than existential nihility that tends towards nothingness outside of ‘being’, here ‘being’ itself constitutes emptiness. The concept of ‘sunyata’ (emptiness) which corresponds to non-substantiality means that things and phenomena do not have essence or substance in themselves but only exist in relation to the other. Everything is interdependent, impermanent and empty of substance and because everything is empty, everything is possible.
Modern science that puts rationality at its center has more in common with eastern philosophy that it would like to accept. Throughout the history of science, humans have believed in a hard solid reality and nature outside human mind and tried to understand and explain it through laws and then build technologies. 20th century’s two great physical theories, however — quantum mechanics and relativity completely dispelled this vision of reality. The findings were quite radical and changed the way we look at the world. Some of its insights were as follows —
While relativity proved that matter and energy are interchangeable. Quantum mechanics showed that the building blocks of matter — atoms are not things in themselves but observable phenomena. They form a world of potentials and possibilities rather than things and fact. Uncertainty principle confirmed that a particle can exist as a wave depending on the observer and it is not possible to determine its position and momentum at the same time.This puts forth the idea that Mind (realm of thought) and matter (realm of material world) are not completely distinct giving rise to objective reality that the mind has to comprehend. They are distinct but always connected. The mind does not end in the brain and matter is made of wave functions or vibrations. It is motile, fluid and everchanging. The solid objective reality that appears to be outside the mind that one has to deal with, does not really exist without the mind of the observer. It can change according to the change in the mind of the observer.
Humans then used the insight of these theories to create the most advanced of technology that now connects and runs the world. The information revolution that runs on data made of bits and bytes and helps us do things that were previously impossible uses the insights of quantum mechanics. We now have the most powerful nuclear weapons to show our technological prowess. However, we didn’t have to wait for German physicists in the 1920s to help us see this view of reality. Buddhist teachings have been pointing to this for centuries and rather than observing atoms splitting under the microscope, one can directly experience this truth by observing one’s own mind through meditation. Of course, one can’t make scientific tools, make long distance video calls or even build a space ship to explore the universe outside our planet by observing one’s mind. But, what is the purpose of engaging in scientific explorations and find life on other planets when we can’t even understand our own minds and help create a better civilization here in the one home we have. Isn’t it more important to create better relationships and experience the whole of life deeply rather than build things to conquer the universe in our desire for immortality.
The worldview that Buddhist teachings offer is drastically different and holistic than the Western worldview. To start with, the universe did not begin with an event called Big Bang. It operates in cycles of expansion and contraction and has no beginning and no end. The understanding of death also takes the middle way — which means neither complete annihilation such that life of an individual ends with death nor a belief in an eternal soul remaining that takes birth again and again. Rather, since life is awareness of itself, our consciousness has levels and we can perceive the same reality differently according levels of awareness. There are 4 stages of life state — birth, life, death and the intermediate state between death and birth. On our physical death, some part of consciousness that contains cause-effect relationships (karma) doesn’t end with the body and passes on in the universe for the next birth. Lives are seen as coming and going of sea waves, and the ocean is the universe.
Contrary to plain scientific view that birth happens when an ovum and sperm merge to form an egg, there is a third thing that is added and that is the work of the karma. Science can explain the mechanical working of the way nature works but it can not explain the diversity and why life works the way it does for different people. It can not answer the particularities.
Consider this stanza from one of the ancient Buddhist texts -
“Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind, and the self and the environment of all sentient beings in the Ten Worlds as well as all insentient beings in the Three thousand realms, including plants, sky, earth and even the minutest particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena. To be awakened to this principle is itself the mutually inclusive relationship of life at each moment and all phenomena.”
This non-dual way of thinking offers continuity between human mind and the environment he lives in — between all that is human and that which appears as non-human — it reveals the wholeness of things. There is a direct link of the self (microcosmos) and the universe (macrocosmos). Of, course there is a distinction between humans and each species that exist, but it doesn’t devalue or consider human reason as superior to other forms of life. All phenomena are condensed within our life, and at the same time our life pervades the universe. The same power that moves the universe exists within our lives. Therefore, the Self can expand to contain everything else that exists as there is no unchanging, constant identity that we call the Self . The ‘I’, that we ceaselessly try to give ground to our entire life can expand to contain the entire universe.
Our fate as humans is undeniably connected with the biosphere, we are subject to universal and natural laws. Physical reality has order and follows the law of cause and effect — but this causality is not linear, meaning that an effect can not be attributed to a single cause, but there are multiple causes and conditions — cause and effect happen simultaneously or effect lies within the cause itself. This is based on the law of dependent origination that talks about the interconnectedness of all phenomena — For eg. a piece of paper in my hand contains all that phenomena that has made it reach here — the trees, the rain, the clouds, the people who carried the trunks, the factory workers et all. Fundamental reality is an interconnected process not made up of discrete things. Each part of nature interacts with the other to form a harmonious whole. All of reality is present in each of its parts, and each part reflects all other parts.
When we believe that the laws that govern nature lie outside of us, we feel succumbed to its might, to its power imposing on us, whereas if we believe that the universal law lies within us, it gives us true freedom to realise the whole of universe that we experience in our lifetimes. This makes the finite and atomized individual able to realise the infinite, for the specificity of his actual experience to assume universal meaning and to exist and work in collaboration with natural cycles and rhythms. It is already too late to think that we need to solve human problems first, and then we will think about what is happening ‘outside’ in nature. This non-anthropocentric worldview would require de conditioning of our minds and re enchantment of our dualistic world. Enlightenment lies in everyday world in this life — it is a change in perspective, another way of experiencing this world, to “take” the same things differently, to live ethically, expand our notion of Self, get rid of greed, hate and anger and to save all beings.
The goal then must be to liberate science, knowledge, time and language from the confines of capitalism, patriarchy and institutions that are structured to produce knowledge that limits us, that ties us without a rope. True freedom lies in non-duality, non-violence, wisdom and compassion for all living beings. To shift from social structures that feed on desire that is self destructive, one has to work on personal transformation as well as collective organisation to aim towards creating structures that are stable, sustainable and directed towards peace. The past and the future lie in the present moment, the eternity itself is present in every moment. To create futures is to take embodied, ego less action, to realize infinite potential that lies within us and light the path for others.
You can’t remake the world without remaking yourself
Each new era begins within
It is an inward event,
With unsuspected possibilities
For inner liberation.