eyes and hair croppedHow did we get to where we are? 

In the developed West we tend to see the world through the ‘lens of separation’. We see ourselves, other humans and our earthly environment as separated, one from the other. This way of thinking is often traced back to the 17th century French philosopher, Rene Descartes. His was a separation of body and mind (or soul), often called ‘Cartesian Dualism’ and summed up in his phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’. Thus he based the foundation of existence on the self. He understood the body to be a machine with a non-material soul – hence the modern expression, ‘The ghost in the machine’. But long before Descartes, the Judaeo-Christian Book of Genesis had separated man from the rest of the world, giving humans dominion over the Earth. In this context Descartes’ writings had profound influence. They gave permission for a coldly biological and materialistic view of the human body with which we still struggle. Descartes was a key inspiration for Newton’s physics, Darwin’s biology, Freud’s psychology and ultimately, biomedicine.

Eastern thought has a different history.

You are, therefore I am

Just as Descartes’ famous (perhaps infamous) phrase, ‘I think, therefore I am’, stands for separation, so this phrase, ‘You are, therefore I am’, stands for connection. This is the title of the 2002 book by Satish Kumar, Indian child monk, peace pilgrim, ecological activist and educator. The  subtitle of his book, ‘A declaration of dependence’ starkly contrasts with the Western aspiration for independence. Naturally, the world can be seen as both separate and connected, so-called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Your default preference is conditioned by the culture within which you are raised. Very many cultures understand the world primarily through the lens of connection, particularly those influenced least by European thinking. In contrast, most of the ‘developed’ world is suffering from fragmentation at many levels. For the sake of all of us in the West, we need more joined up thinking, more connected seeing and being.

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Satish Kumar has published at least eight books. You Are Therefore I Am, is semi-autobiographical: he has had a remarkable life.

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Language

Our language reflects our culture – both wider culture and sub-cultures. If you are a coffee drinker, or biker, or angler you will have words that float off your tongue with ease and assurance – words for the things you use – the skinny latte, your favourite saddle, the best performing rod. There is something comforting about knowing precisely what you want. But there are some things we all want and cannot live without, yet we find hard to communicate. Take relationships, for instance – especially love. This problem in communication may apply to the English-speaking cultures and language more than some others. The Classical Greeks had six words for love.

shopkeeper-shop-pots+pans5e69c334056b144ef1b3117636b83ca2Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have called the English, ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. It is true that the English have been a mercantile nation for many centuries, especially since the Industrial Revolution. We are also the birthplace of utilitarianism, the moral principle that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (John Stuart Mill, 1863). So according to utilitarianism, our one moral duty is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. This morality fits the commodity market tolerably well, but is too simplistic for love, with its complex mixture of pleasure and pain. In the hands of great writers the English language shines a light into the darkest places. But few of us have their genius.

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As commodities and markets dominate our lives and dominate our health service, we begin to think and to speak about relationships in these simplistic terms. Or perhaps we cease thinking and speaking about relationships altogether. It may seem easier that way, but the result is disconnection from the wonder of life, and of course, loneliness.

 

The Marriage

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.

Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time.

She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.

‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance.

And she, who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
or the shedding
of one sigh
no heavier than a feather.

R. S. Thomas