There is a very long history in the western world to our experience of being a separate individual, atomised from the world; a world that right now, as a result, seems to be descending into a crescendo of fragmentation and disintegration. At the same time, many of us, at one time or another, have intuitions of a deeper truth, in which all of life is an inseparable One. This has important implications, especially at a time when we are facing unprecedented collective existential challenges. But when the environment around us and our own inherited thinking, is so abstracted from the natural processes of life that continually inform us of a greater truth, this puts great stress on anyone called to the spiritual quest. This is because our culture, and our own inherited thinking, rather than supporting this truth, is continually subverting it.
Recently I had a discussion with a friend in India in which we explored some of these issues, in particular, the experience of living in a civilisation where the inherent unity and interrelationship with all of life, is deeply embedded and reflected in the culture itself.
S: Just over ten years ago, due to unforeseen circumstances, I found myself living and working in India for about seven years. During this extended period, a very simple recognition began to dawn on me. I realised that the way people were perceiving and experiencing the world in India, was completely different to the way I experienced and perceived it myself, as a result of my own civilization and background. Up to that point I don’t think I’d ever really considered that different parts of the world, or different civilizations, could have completely different ways of looking at the world and experiencing it. It might sound obvious, but I think for us in the modern west, to be able to see our own culture from the outside, to be able to see it as a culture particular to itself, is a big deal. It’s not a small event. I think it’s very difficult to realise that there are different ways of experiencing the self, who we are, the world, our relationship to the world, when we live entirely within the confines of our own culture. The fundamental character of it, which supports a very particular view of the world, is almost invisible to us. So, many of the things that I am thinking about now, really have their basis in that recognition, and how my way of perceiving things has changed as a result.
For one thing, in the modern world, because we tend to relate to everything through our own subjective experience, it makes it very hard to perceive things directly. One of the things that has happened to my perception as a result of spending time in India, is that I’m not so focused on my internal experience, but more on the world itself, and the impact of the world itself on me, if that makes sense.
F: I think it’s important what you’re saying. Could you give some examples of what you were perceiving that was different, and how it hit you that there is a different way to be?
S: I think the clearest example has to do with the experience of relationship. Coming from the western world, one’s relationships tend to be based on one’s personal needs, one’s friends, or just transactional: it’s all very related to the individual self. It’s not that such relationships don’t exist in this country, obviously they do. But what I discovered in India was an experience of relationship to life as a whole, which means not just life as a whole, but in that, all aspects of that whole, including people. But it has more to do with an inherent relationship to life itself. So, the barriers between my own internal world and the world itself, which includes people, which includes creatures, which includes the natural world, the filters really started to break down, in a way that I found quite wonderful. Part of that was realising that what I was experiencing was coming from within the culture itself, not just something that I was experiencing, but something present in the culture.
F: Yes, I think there is a very deep sense of interconnectedness in the culture. And as you’re suggesting it emanates in different ways, and a lot of this is subliminal. It’s not that people are explicitly saying something or the other. But very often if you see how we tend to respond to other people, or animals, or to trees, or to nature, some of that comes through. But as your suggesting, it’s very hard to objectify this. One is not standing on the outside perceiving it. The perception and the experience of it, is all happening simultaneously. I think we’re trying to describe something that is both subjective and non-subjective.
F: That distinction between subjective and non-subjective is not as hard-edged as one tends to think it is, I suppose, in ‘the modernist paradigm’. So, it’s difficult to speak about, because the moment we stand outside of what we’re talking about, and try to describe it, we immediately lose touch with it.
S: I think this is one of the things about the nature of language, especially a language that is based in a very…conceptual apparatus. It’s very hard to find the words to describe the experience.
F: Yes, because the emotional resonance is not inherent in the language.
S: Right. And also, when you start to try to talk in ways that cross over modern categories, in terms of the ‘self’ and the ‘world’ for example, the categories really start to break down. When I am in India I find the emotional impact of those boundaries breaking down, is an experience of ‘being’. There’s a relaxation in a very deep way. Because when you are brought up in the western world, those categories are very real, and profoundly shape one’s experience, and this experience of ‘being at home’ in the world, as it were, is much harder to achieve. Whereas when this categorization, which as I see it now, is an imposition on reality, breaks down and becomes transparent, it’s an emotional experience. You feel a sense of release, a deep relaxation, and also, a shift in perception. I think all of these things happen simultaneously. And that shift in perception relates to many different things. I was talking specifically about relationship, but it also relates to the question of other things, such as time and place.
F: Yes, because this experience of being at home is a very embodied experience. It’s related in some way to time and place. And so, where one is seems to matter. Because there is a collective experience that we are all part of, that seems to shift from place to place. And again, if the boundaries of the self are very rigid or very strong, then it becomes hard to feel at home anywhere, really. Because I think being at home has a lot to do with being at rest in oneself very deeply, and not in a self that is rigidly enclosed within certain categories.
S: Absolutely, I agree. And I think this experience of feeling at home in the world, also allows one to…live a life, in a sense; to discover what we, in particular…are doing here. Because I think we’re all here for certain reasons. And it’s only when you start to feel truly at home in the world, that you also get in touch simultaneously with what I would call, the soul. I know that word has a lot of unfortunate connotations (laughs). But, it’s a deeper part of the self, which is connected to everything. And that deeper part of the self emerges I think, when we feel at home in the world. Then there’s this kind of reciprocation between the experience of being at home, and the world itself; which opens up a much deeper and richer form of being alive. It gives credence to the whole sense of what being alive really means.
F: Yes, I think our understanding of life is actually a collective experience, it’s not so much an individual experience. And it really has to do with the pointers the culture is placing in front of us, and that we’re participating in, it’s not merely an external event. So, for example, to reinforce what you’re saying, if you take something as basic as a calendar, one has a sense of time that’s very…matter of fact. If you look at the Gregorian calendar, and we happen to be in the month of May, and this is the 23rd day of May, then you carry on and you get June, et cetera. There is something quite detached about all of that. There is no sense that one’s actually in a flow of life.
So, if you consider some of the more traditional calendars by which a lot is still governed in this country, there’s a clear sense of the seasons, and the months are situated in a season. And it’s situated in the foods that you eat, for example, and what is made available to you during that season. And the ways in which one participates in and celebrates life, is related to that. So, the calendar is not some detached event, by which one is clocking the passage of time. It’s an inherent part of experiencing life: it is life in a certain way. So, this is just one example, there could be many more. And one sees, again and again, that who one might be, and one’s own actual emotional experience of life, is very related to that.
Again, it’s hard to speak about this without continuously bringing back the sense of a separate self. So when one says ‘one ‘or ‘self’ or whatever, when you and I are speaking, we are not really speaking about the separate sense of self. And what you’re calling the soul: is not that. It’s a deeper aspect of being, as you’re saying, but it’s not separate from life. And when one enters into that, you feel naturally part of life, your choices, even your relationships in some way, the things that you may celebrate, they are all related, they are not unrelated events. So, there’s always a deeper, broader, wider context within which one is experiencing life. One may consciously or not interpret that experience in particular ways, but it’s an inherent part of living.
So, there’s a naturalness to it, to the degree that I suppose one’s not disconnected from it. Obviously, that can happen wherever you might be. But the culture is pointing to the deeper truth of this; it’s the cycles of nature, for example, or the cycles of the moon. Even in parts of the country here that have solar calendars, they also have a lunar calendar. And the movement of the stars, and where one is in one’s own sense of the progression of life, and where one is in one’s own life stage. Time is one example, just as space is, and how the culture is pointing to the inherent interrelatedness of life or not, as the case may be. So, these are deeply embedded cultural symbols, very deeply embedded. And they inevitably will have an effect on how we are living.
S: Yes. I think that’s fascinating. Obviously in the modern world we have become very separated from the natural world, and our modern systems are constantly reinforcing that separation. So, when you live in a culture where, as you said, the way we eat, the way particular events are celebrated, how activities are done, revolve around the natural world, then it gives one a certain experience. You feel that your own life is not separate from that whole process. Just to give you a very local example of that for me right now is that we have been watching these Brahmani kites, which are large birds that are very particular to the area we are living in on the Malabar Coast. So there are some babies of these kites that were born in a tree right across from where we live. And we’ve been watching them grow up and begin to learn to fly, and begin to learn to hunt for themselves. And just perceiving this whole process you feel, “oh, this is life, this is what we are.” There’s a kind of intimacy with it, which reinforces a sense of the wonder of life, in its different cycles, just as the changing seasons do the same thing. And, the stages of life do the same thing. Obviously, I come from a culture where youth is celebrated and old age is ignored, because it’s related to death. And since death is so hidden away, as indeed many of these big experiences in life are hidden away in the modern world, it deprives us of the experience of this intimacy with life itself, and it’s larger processes. You feel you are part of this extraordinary unfolding, that’s happening in so many different ways. And it’s an endlessly enriching experience.
F: Yes. And it’s because you see that your experience is really not separate from the collective experience, and not just the collective human experience…the collective experience of life. And so, when the culture is reinforcing those signals, the sense of separate self, diminishes – or at least, there’s a context that’s created for it. It’s not that there is no sense of an individual life; there is a sense of an individual life. But that individual life is part of much larger processes. And you see your own response to life, or even your duty to life, if you will, in that context. How is it that one is supposed to live, what is a good life? This is a question that has been asked in this culture for a long time; it’s not that it’s an irrelevant question, of course it matters. The progression of the individual does matter. But it’s all in context. In the vastness of life there are many things that to come to us that are not really a matter of personal choice. We don’t control the waxing and waning of the moon, but it has an effect. Are we even aware of it? We don’t control the coming of the summer, but what’s our relationship to it?
So, it’s not just the wholeness of life, but the recognition that in the wholeness of life there is an inevitability of cycles, and death is just an inherent part of things. The question is, what is one’s relationship to all of these things? So, the signals one receives from the culture, not as a separate person, but as one’s actual lived experience in the interiority of one’s own being, matter a lot; because none of us actually exist as completely independent, self-made beings. But when one imposes that idea on one’s life, and all the categories that try to reinforce that idea, at the root of it there’s an issue, because already we are having to make sense of something within categories that don’t really fully allow us to be at home, in life.
In Indian languages, in poetry for example, there are a lot of cultural metaphors that are related to the calendar, as I was saying. The calendar is not an object that lives outside oneself. It’s not a wall hanging. And so, when one speaks of certain types of flowers that bloom in certain seasons, or the fruits one may eat, for example, right now it’s the mango season right?
F: So that’s a cultural marker of summer. And there’s a lot that’s been said about mangoes in this culture, a lot! (Both laugh) It’s a big passionate subject. So, it’s the food that we eat, the festivals that we celebrate, the relationships we have, what we mark and what we don’t mark. But there are other things that could be very personal. Just two weeks ago, I did the ceremonies for the one-year passage of my father, according to the Telugu calendar. Even life, is part of a much larger process. And it’s not confined to the human realm. Which also matters, because it’s not only what is visible or apparently visible to the five senses, but also, what is not so easily visible, that is part of this process.
S: I think within this experience of feeling at home, and this experience of life and the cycles of life that it is not separate from oneself, is also the question, how do we live? This is a very worrying question in the western world, where generally you are thinking about that question from the point of view of a separate individual. But when one has more of an experience of being at home in the world, then how to live, how to respond to things, the direction to take; changes. When you are living life more in relationship to life as a whole, then I think how to live a life, becomes in relationship to that whole: that becomes your guiding principle, if you like. When I say guiding principle, I am talking about something that is quite mysterious, that is embedded in this experience of relationship. And there is this strange interface I find between the choices that one makes, the perceptions that one has, and this experience of relationship, that is in an ongoing way quite fascinating, and makes one wonder about many aspects of all of this.
F: Because I think this inquiry or quest if you will, is not a dry affair. It’s not something that one can figure out by having all ‘the right ideas’ and ‘right thoughts’, and so forth. One only finds out…through engagement. For example, if we take someone like the great sage, Ramana Maharshi. People just say that what he taught was this question, “Who am I?” And then someone would have a pat answer to that question. But it doesn’t really work like that, at least, I don’t think. There was a kind of fullness to the embodiment of his response to that question that spontaneously arose in him, which begins to shake loose our ideas about these things. The degree of care he would take around food, not wasting anything, is one example, and the manner in which he was responding to people. He was not responding in general. It was not a general teaching that he was just tossing out. It was always in response to somebody who was right in front of him, and asking him questions; and there was something happening in that interaction which really mattered. That’s why it had such potency, and continues to have such potency. It’s not really dependent on him apparently having a body or not. So, there is a mystery, as you were saying, to all of this, that has tremendous implications for our perception: how we are perceiving, what we are perceiving, and what conclusions are being drawn from that perception.
So, all this is part of a whole, it’s not a separate individuated process of trying to find the answer to the question, ‘how should I live my life?’ Yes, it is in one sense, but that quest is not only coming from oneself, there’s something deeper about it. And if it’s an urgent question for one, at least in this culture, there’s a strong sense that it doesn’t just come forward from this life. It doesn’t only have to do with my present escapades on the planet. It has to do with the fundamental question of what is life itself. And so, the more profoundly, the more continuously and consistently a culture has contemplated that question, will inevitably have a result in how the individual is going to respond.
Thanks to Sandeep Kr Yadav and Charly Grace for their photos from Unsplash