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Eco-Mind & Thinking Reverentially

 

An interview with Henryk Skolimowski

  Henryk Skolimowsky - Copyright Pierre Le Neveu

WEVE REACHED a stage in social evolution when it is imperative that we develop a larger view, to see the whole in order to better understand the parts. Our techno-scientific world-view has achieved much, but its limitations have become all too apparent. The house of cards upon which our energy and economic needs are built is but one result of this lack of vision. Decision-making within institutions has become a completely rational process affected by parochial pressures and the strain of expediency. No longer are human values a consideration, much less a part of the equation. Spirit has been removed. A vital piece of life is missing. Is it any wonder there is confusion, consternation, and chaos? We are in the midst of information abundance, yet there is a dearth of genuine wisdom. Henryk Skolimowski has put forward a new vision, and he calls it Eco-philosophy. It may just provide a positive response to the demands of our time.

 

Michael Toms: Henryk, what is Eco-philosophy, and how does it differ from what we ordinarily interpret as traditional philosophy?

Henryk Skolimowski: Eco-philosophy, as I see it, is a rational reconstruction of the human condition as we approach the twenty-first century. I emphasize the term rational, for reason at large is not something to scorn. Indeed, I cannot see any reconstruction whatsoever to be accomplished through unreason. However, I do not identify reason and rationality with the precepts of narrow science, or with computer-like thinking. Reason and rationality are a glorious accomplishment of evolution, and for me reason encompasses it all, including all our sensitivities. The generic term for philosophy is philosophia, the love of wisdom, and this is what philosophy has been through millennia. It tries to aid us in the quest for meaning, in the quest for an understanding of not only the trivial everyday life, but also of this larger cosmosits furniture, its intricacies, our connection with it on the physical level and all other levels as well.

Now in the twentieth century, as a result of specialization, all disciplines were forced to specialize. In addition, even philosophy has done it. The idea of scientific philosophy arrived on the stage around 1910 with Bertrand Russell. Then the philosophers from the Vienna Circle in Vienna, in Austria, picked up the idea and pushed it to an extreme. Philosophy became a scrutiny of the structure of language and, in my opinion, was short-changed. Bit by bit, philosophy was made an inquiry into the nature of linguistic propositions. Philosophers became preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with how language works. Distinguished philosophers such as J. L. Austin started writing essays on Ifs and Cans. If you think how much that is removed from the real quest of philosophy, then you realize that something bizarre has happened.

Nowadays, even analytical philosophers themselves are rather unhappy with the position they have been pushed into. They try to get out of it. Somehow, however, they are stuck. They try to get unstuck in a piecemeal way, while what we need is a total reconstruction, changing the whole mode of thinking, of perceiving and of valuing. It is here that Eco-philosophy comes into focus as a new cosmology, a new way of rethinking the multitude.

Instead of conceiving the universe as a clock-like mechanism, governed by deterministic laws, in which we are stuck as a little bolt or screw, we can assume that the universe is a sanctuary and we are its custodianspriests if you will. The mechanistic universe was based on the assumptions of the mechanistic nature of the cosmos. Eco-philosophy is based on the view that the nature of the universe is unfolding, evolutionary, and emergent. Because its emergent, you dont know what will happen next. It is the glory and the beauty of evolution that it is creative, producing new variationsof which the human mind is one. Every new idea is a blossoming of creative evolution. A new philosophy is for me a manifestation of the ability of evolution to create through us. Put otherwise, a new creative conception of the cosmos is a response of evolutionthrough us!to get unstuck. For if we are stuck, evolution is stuck. We have got locked in a cul-de-sac and now we are unlocking ourselves by creating new vistas through which we show that we have somewhere to go, and that evolution has somewhere to go.

This is a very short answer to what Eco-philosophy wants to accomplish. It wants to create a new cosmology within which we are at home in this universe and at peace with all creation.

Most of us, when we hear the term philosophy, have a vision of musty books on library shelves. In our society, philosophy has been relegated mostly to the halls of academia. One doesnt find the philosophical view, or lice philosophical approach, very much present in mainstream society or life. We dont often hear our politicians ask, What are the philosophical implications of this particular piece of legislation? Thats just not part of the consideration. Why do you think this has happened in our society? Why have we come to this, where philosophy is no longer really present in the everyday, practical side of life?

It is in part the result of the growing specialization in the twentieth century. But its also the result of a mistaken myth that the glory of the human condition lies in the improvement of our material lot and that, consequently, you have to bank on material progress, on technology and science.

Yet, I want to point out to you that those very assumptions of material progress are philosophical assumptions par excellence. We may think that we have thrown philosophy out of the window, that we do not need it. But our pragmatic modes of operation, the ways we think what reality is, are all based on some philosophical assumptions. Usually they are rather crude assumptions in which the universe is conceived predominantly as material, and we are conceived as predominantly acquisitive creatures, or comfort creatures. Yet we know that the most glorious moments of our life and in the history of the human species are not the ones in which we live as comfort creatures, So to the degree to which present philosophy has cast us in the image of comfort creatures, it has put a philosophical straitjacket on our being. We are thus victims of a shallow philosophy.

True enough, a good deal of philosophy is contained in those dry books that gather dust on the shelves of our libraries. But in addition to those, there are some very exciting books on philosophy to which we return over and again. If you take the history of your own program, New Dimensions, what Ive been seeing over the years is a development of a new, exciting philosophy. Philosophers do not have the monopoly on creating new philosophy. New philosophy is emerging all the time. For philosophy has always been an in-depth reflection on the human condition. It will be alive as long as the human condition is alive, as long as we persist in being human. Thus I dare say that as long as we search for humanity in ourselves, as long as we search for freedom; we are not going to be confined by shallow philosophy which reduces us to comfort creatures.

In a sense, each of us is a philosopher?

Right. And if you examine in some depth those notions which assert, We dont need philosophy, we are pragmatic, we are realistic, you find they are based on some philosophical notions. What is it to be pragmatic? It means to assume that economic gains are most important in life. Is that true? What is it to be realistic? There is a paradox here. What goes under being realistic is totally unrealistic nowadays. For we behave in a foolish, destructive, anti-productive way vis--vis ourselves, vis--vis the environment. And we call it realistic. When you think about it, it is totally unrealistic.  

Thus, we have to evolve a new concept of realism whereby we are less destructive to ourselves, to other beings, to the environmentor expressing it in positive termsmore life-enhancing. And this is another name for Eco-philosophy. It attempts to be life-enhancing. It attempts to show what kind of beliefs and values may help us in seeing ourselves more clearly as human beings, a very special kind of species, who have the responsibility for themselves, but also the responsibility for the planet and, if you will, for the rest of the cosmos.  

Henryk, I remember Buckminster Fuller saying that more than seventy percent of the work force in America is devoted to non-life-support activities, activity in work-a-day America that really isnt oriented toward enhancing life. In a society based essentially on capitalism, with an orientation to the bottom line and profits, how would one integrate Eco-philosophy? I mean particularly society where the bottom line is paramount.

I would look at the situation the other way around. Not how one integrates Eco-philosophy into the existing structurethat concept would be a kiss of death for Eco-philosophybut rather how one integrates the existing world and structure into Eco-philosophy.

You may think this to be ambitious, but we have to be ambitious in order to make sense of our life, in order to survive, in order to have a future. We are all searching desperately for a new lease on life, for structures both economic and political as well as human and ecological that are life-supportingnot only to our individual quest for meaning, but also that are life-supporting to the economy at large. What we are seeing is that the capitalistic structures simply do not work even in terms of capitalism itself. These structures desperately need a new lease on life.

I see capitalism as a cycle, a rather extravagant one, of Western civilization. It was one avenue to see how far we can explore the world and what kind of benefit we can accrue to ourselves individually if we say, Everybody has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases. We have found that in the contingent world we cant do it, because if some pursue their avenue as they pleaseto the detriment of othersthe whole boat begins to tilt sooner or later. And this is what is happening. Therefore, I see Eco-philosophy as an attempt to provide a new set of structures whereby existing practices, visions, and ways of interacting with each other can be renewed and translated in life-enhancing forms.

One of the principles of Eco-philosophy is frugality, which must not be mistaken as imposed poverty or abnegation. Frugality, for me, is a positive principle. Frugality is a precondition of inner beauty. You have to pause a little in order to realize that this is how the greatest works of art were created. When the artist imposes on himself severe limitations and out of the chunk of marble creates a marvelous sculpture, this is frugality in the best sense. With limited means creating wonderful ends: This is what frugality is about. This is partly in keeping with Buckminster Fullers idea of doing more with less. This is what inventiveness and creativeness mean: with limited means creating rich and excellent ends. This is, incidentally, what the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess advocates: a life which is slender in means and rich in ends.

In the present society, it is just the reverse. We use enormously rich and versatile means, and achieve ends in no proportion to the investment. We have become a people who are developing means for other means which never translate into ends which we can acknowledge as life-enhancing, as adding to our life and as adding to the life of the planet. The other definition of frugality is that frugality is grace without waste. I think we dont have to apologize for using the term grace, for it is part of the human condition.

On occasion, I am asked to give a brief definition of Eco-philosophy. You cannot do it. You need ten to fifteen hours to do justice to the idea which seeks to redefine the lot. Eco-philosophy, like the Buddhist Eightfold Path, suggests that all things are interconnected. Right assumptions about the world lead to right beliefs, lead to right or correct thinking, lead to correct action, lead to right livelihood, and lead to right contemplation. Action is important, but only if it is based on right values and right visions. Otherwise, it is blind action. Actually, we so often rush from one form of action to another form of action, thinking that this other form of action is our salvation, while the whole foundation of our action is unsound. Nowadays we have to rethink the whole lot. Another way of looking at the situation in which we are at present is to summarize it in the following way.

Life is short.

Art is long.

Experience difficult.

Truth is enticing to seek.

Difficult to attain.

The delights of being are many.

The delights of becoming are infinite.

And the last phrase is one I want to emphasize. We are the creatures of becoming. This is the nature of evolution. This is the nature of all evolving societies. Unless we continually transcend, we petrify. The problem with our society and with our education is that we have gotten stuck in certain forms of being. And we petrify. Our present social structures and institutions are really interested in self-perpetuation and creating people in their own image. They want supporters which keep the system going. This is one of the reasons why in spite of the fact that we have a huge system of education, it doesnt help us in the quest of enlightenment. Our educational institutions are set to make us obedient ciphers, not to make us free people.

Seemingly, another principle in life is resisting change, being comfortable with the status quo. When you speak of Eco-philosophy, one of the things that seem to be present is constant change. Theres always an emergence of new thoughts, new ideas, new ways to think, new ways to do thingsthat can be very uncomfortable. What about that discomfort and working through it?

Well, it can be very uncomfortable. But living in changing time is always uncomfortable. However, if you live a life that is open and engaging, you always find a response to the unexpected. It is the unexpected, the new, that is the joy and delight of life. In the States, we try to immune ourselves from change because it means insecurity. This is one of our paradoxes: On one hand we say that we are the society that is changing, we are the society on the go; on the other hand, we have tried to create an economic structure of security through which we can be undisturbed. The two do not go together.

We need to go deeper into the nature of the human condition and how we conceive of what it is to be human. If you think that we are unfolding with evolution, that we are creative, you have to embrace change and discomfort, for it is a part of the beauty and agony of becoming. And you had better persuade yourself that it is good, because it cannot be otherwise. So far as I can see, there is no way to make people comfortable and immune from change and pain unless they are in the grave.

Perhaps we can talk about how we can become more co-creative and overcome the negative view of the world which is so prevalent today. Optimism may be a biological necessity, and its certainly a principle of Eco-philosophy. Henryk, as you were saying, we are co-creators with evolution and were the determining factor as to what happens next. Also inherent in your remarks is the idea that somehow we need to celebrate life more than were doing, that life is rich and full. But so often, were looking at the holes, noticing the gaps, and experiencing problems. When we look around us, we realize that were in an environment permeated by a constant reinforcement of whats wrong with the worldthe negative, tile darker view. How does one break through this incredible reinforcement of the negative?

You are quite right when you say that optimism may be a biological necessity. And I would add that hope is not a prerogative of foolish people, but part of the ontological being of man in this world. Once you lose hope, you disintegrate as a human being. Well if so, why are we ridden with the plague of hopelessness, helplessness, and a kind of dreariness? Why do we not celebrate life, when in a sense life fully lived is life celebrated? There are many reasons; Ill just speak of two of them.

One is that the prevailing system of education develops above all the critical faculties, the skeptical faculties, nihilistic faculties. In order to be clever, you always try to puncture everything that is presented to you. You try to cut everything into bits and pieces. This doesnt develop an attitude of wholeness and celebration of life. The educational system says, If you are clever, try to decompose and destroy everything. But there is a deeper reason still for this attitude of critical scrutiny, of dismembering everything, of showing how you can always cut. This deeper reason is the acceptance of the mechanistic world-view, which assumes that everything is made of discrete atoms which interact in a deterministic way; and which also assumes that the deeper you cut, the further you go. The tunnel / atomistic vision is inherent in our mechanistic world-view.

The other side of the coin is our inability to perceive holistically, in a connected and integrated way. Now, hope requires an affirmation of a meaningful universe, which is one coherent whole. The mechanistic universe isolates, separates, detaches everything from everything else. Moreover, it is devoid of human meaning. Hence, we have to transcend mechanistic science to create the universe of hope. If you closely look at the mechanistic scheme, you realize that the celebration of life is not there. It does not belong to the system, the system does not have the terminology for such things.

The hardheaded scientist may insist that this view of the universe is the right one. I say that his assumptions are myopic and are distorting the real picture of the universe. According to Eco-philosophy, we can choose a celebratory universe in which hope is one of its dimensions. Now which assumptions about the universe are right? There is no logical way of resolving the dilemma. Therefore, my response to the question of who is right, the pessimist or the optimist, is not to try to argue out the proposition on logical grounds. Rather, I would propose:

Lets see what pessimism is doing to us, on one hand, and lets see what optimism and hope can do for us, on the other hand.

Why should we assume that the universe is dreary? Why not see that it bursts with new forms of life, it bursts in joy all the time? We need to embark on the universe that is a place for celebration, and we need to act upon our assumption. Only then, we can see the strength and the power of this kind of universe. And to the extent that we are one of its most intricate forms, the universe celebrates itself through us. You cannot disprove logically such art assumption. Let us assume the universe helps us to dwell in it, for we are a part of this universe. There is nothing strange in the assumption that the universe is home for Man. Intuitively, this view is more convincing than the one which assumes that the universe is a hostile, indifferent, cold place in which we drift like helpless monads.

So what we are doing while developing Eco-philosophy is returning to a connected and hospitable conception of the cosmos, in which we are its right inhabitants and which is home for us. I should mention here that these ideas are developed more fully in my book, Living Philosophy, Eco-Philosophy as a Living Tree. (Penguin, 1991)

Many of our institutions, as they have evolved and become a part of our everyday life, have lost the original vision for which they may have been created. They may have been created with a sincere concern for solving a particular human problem, they may have been based on certain values and ethics, but it seems almost one of the principles of institutions that, as they get larger and larger, the values and ethics and similar concerns are almost pushed out of the everyday decision-making process.

Going back to my earlier question about corporations and living in a corporate society, how do those values and ethics come back into play? From what you were saying, one projection of the future may be that an institutionsay, a corporationmight have a resident eco-philosopher to assess how profits and the bottom line may be directly related to that institutions concern with the future overall effect of what it is doing. Id like to relate that to the importance of institutions once again showing a real concern with human values and with ethicsbasically, a return to integrity as an important component in ones everyday functioning.

Well, again, integrity is something peculiarly human. It is not a property of the mechanistic universe. It is not a property of a corporation that makes profit. It is not something that you find in our economic accounting. It is only when you have the peculiar sense that without integrity you are not whole, you are not fully human, that you begin to inject into the systemwhatever the system isa new parameter, a new dimension. And it is at this point that you examine all institutions and realize that, somehow or other, almost each of them alienates itself from the purpose for which it has been originally created. This is part of the dialectics of life.

An institutionor any set of institutionsis created to provide for certain needs, certain requirements, social or individual, and usually it serves those needs for a while. But then once those needs are satisfied, we come to evolve new needs. The institution usually doesnt evolve to cater to these new needs, and it tries to respond in terms of the old needs. After a while, we find the institution quite antithetical to new needs that have evolved in response to life and in response to our own quest for going beyond, for transcendence. To that degree, every institutionwhether we take a little civic institution in the city or an institution like the Catholic Churchhas a tendency to get stuck and to respond to early needs rather than new evolving needs.

Well, it is the genius of a people or an institution that is able to adjust itself and change with changing needs. Most institutions do not do it. The bigger they are, the more clumsy and the more entrenched they become, and they try to translate our needs into what they can do for themselves. At that point, there is quite a chasm between what an institution is doing and what it ought lobe doing if it were doing its right job. And this is what has happened, not only with institutions, but also with technology at large.

Technology may be thought of as a form of institution for taking care of our needs. Each and all technologies were conceived for our good, for the betterment of our individual and social life. This is the purpose they served for quite a while. Then they became too big, too independent, too autonomous. Now they are perpetuating themselves andif we can anthropomorphize a littlehave the cheek of claiming us as an appendage to them. At this point, its pathological, its really bizarre. An instrument has taken over. The sorcerers apprentice has unlocked the secrets, unleashed the tremendous powers which it is unable to control.

There is something wrong in the process if it leads to consequences that are antithetical to the original purposes. Well, to that degree, we have to really change and scrap lots of institutions, including technology. Im not saying that technology will have to just be thrown on the rubbish heap of history. But some of its forms that are antithetical to the ends of our life and that are threatening the whole planet, that become a major threat to the whole model of evolutionthese have to be revised.

What the humans have done can be changed and undone. To that degree, I am a kind of staunch optimist. This is a way of really empowering ourselves, by knowing that it all came as a result of certain visions, certain purposes, certain programs, and that we have to restructure our visions. We can have the courage to say, We take our destiny into our hands again. We are not so helpless and powerless as we would be made by some institutions.

As to your suggestion that every major corporation might have a resident eco-philosopher to oversee its overall values and its positive contributions to life at largeits an excellent one! I actually would love to be invited by some corporations as a resident eco-philosopherand prove to them that it would be a good idea.

Henryk, I would like to relate what you were talking about to a pragmatic, real-life situation. If we look at the institution called health care, and if we look at where hospitals have come to and how we deliver medical services to people, weve reached a point of health care being a privilege and not a right. Were talking about excluding certain people from receiving adequate or the best health care. I think this is an example of an institution that has come to a place where the original vision that it was created for has been lost. Even though there is still a concern to take care of people, were talking about ways that can only take care of a certain number of peoplethose who have the right kind of insurance and the right kind of support in order to take advantage of the services provided. What about that?

Health care is a very good example of institutions that somehow alienated themselves from what they were supposed to serve. Again, you cannot blame the institutions, the hospitals and doctors; there is the whole universe that has gone its own way and become uncaring to our well-being. And this is, again, a matter of in-depth perception, a matter of realizing what health care is about. Is it the maintenance of the machine that maintains our spare parts? The more sophisticated the machine becomes, the more expensive spare parts become and the more difficult they become to replace. And the more sophisticated the process, the more costly the process, the more difficult it is to provide it to ordinary people.

Therefore, the right response is not to try to make the mending process via this mechanistic process less expensive, but to look at the larger picture. What is health care? It is the maintenance of our health. It is our health that is at stake. If you look at the problem of health as not only curing illness, but also maintaining our well-being, you change the whole perspective on life, on health. And then you ask yourself what kind of institutions you need to have, what kind of health care you have to have in order to maintain health and keep it in the state of radiance, rather than how to stop this process of prohibitively expensive medical care that is bound to be more and more expensive as the scientific and technological process gets more and more sophisticated. Again, if you are locked in our system, there is no way out. So, you have to get out of the system, and go to China.

I went there in 1976. What struck me is that China is a poor country without poor people. What struck me is that in spite of the fact that there were 800 million people there, everybody has basic health care. But its based on a different principle than ours. And by Zeus, if China can do it, being such a poor country, we should be able to do it. But well be able to do it only if we change our perspective. And this perspective is really not the perspective on the medical machinery and how to improve it, but the perspective on life, health, and death. When we talk about institutions and how to cope with them, I think that the answer lies in changing the perspective of the people who run them, changing the entire vision, and saying to yourself: We can do it otherwise.

It occurs to me that the eco-philosophical view would encompass and accept death as being a part of life. One of the problems with modern health care is the constant emphasis on the prolongation of life at all costs. The lives of people who are essentially no longer functioning as living beings arc prolonged with technology, thereby creating more occupation of hospital beds, and so on. To some extent, the medical establishment hasnt accepted heath as a part of life.

Eco-philosophy tries to do that and tries to suggest that at a certain point the prolongation of certain biological functions is not the prolongation of life. It is just slow death, which is already there which we try to prevent, although we know that we cant. And this requires, again, a deeper look into the human condition, rather than new strategy for how to make those people who are already partly departed survive on a kind of vegetative level.

One of the parts of Eco-philosophy is what I call eco-yoga. In addition to rethinking our principles, we have to go in our existential substratum through certain exercises that enable us to perceive the world and people in a new way. One of those principles is what I call reverential thinking. Once you start to think reverentially about other human beings, and about our relationship with ecology and the world, it does something to you. It really changes your perspective.

Part of this value vacuum, part of the problem with ethics, part of the problem with integrity, is that our attitudes and our thinking are so irreverent. This objective thinking is a kind of careless thinking. Its nihilist thinking, while life in its modus operandi is a very tender phenomenon. When we really take care of life, we take care of life on the basis of a certain reverence for it. I would like to reintroduce reverential thinking as a part of our modus operandi, as a part of our daily perception.

So, in addition to the courses I teach at the university I go to a retreat, you may say, and I run two-week workshops at Arcosantiwhich is Paolo Solaris city in the middle of the Arizona desertin which we try to translate principles of Eco-philosophy into real-life situations. More recently, I have been offering workshops on Ecophilosophy and eco-yoga on the island of Thassos in northern Greece. To enact a new philosophy requires more than just thinking.

Reverential thinking is not thinking about reverence, it is thinking reverentially. And there is a difference. In order to think reverentially, you have to, in a sense, rewire your perception, rewire your assumptions. You have to stop thinking always in economic terms: How I can use this piece of land as a resource... How I can use this person to my purposes? Thinking reverentially is possible because we know that part of our life is lived reverentially, that is, when we care for those who are dear to us, when we are in love. Indeed, to be in love is to treat the other person reverentially.

So reverence is not an idealistic principle, but one that really is part of our state as human beings. I would wish to emphasize that this principle of reverence for life is something that will help us on our road to the future. Reverence for life is not high idealism but stark realism, if we are to have a humane future.

Henryk, when I first saw the title of your book, The Theater of the Mind, what came to me was the drama that so often is a part of what our mind creates. I thought of how much theater we create, which in a sense takes us away from what our real purpose may be. Id like you to comment on that.

Well, for me life is a drama, the whole evolution is a drama, and indeed the mind is one of the most interesting theaters of all. I chose the title The Theater of the Mind quite deliberately in order get away from various scholarly and pedantic titles and the very scholarly, pedantic, and dry treatment of the subject. I think that we have been overwhelmed with the quantity of words, which has the effect of really numbing us. We often assume that the more knowledge we have the more enlightened we become, that the more words we can use the more knowledge we have.

I feel that often the opposite is true. We are inundated by the mountain of information and there is no enlightenment at the end. So I decided to structure the whole book in a different fashionas a series of illuminations inspired very much by the Upanishads. It may be a bit presumptuous to say, but such was my purpose: to write a series of Upanishads for our times. Upanishads are those immortal stories about life and death, the meaning of the universe and the meaning of our own life. And in those Upanishads, the role of the mind is second to none.

In the West, we have made everything pedestrian. Everything is ground to a dry powder of concepts, including the very miracle of mind. I think it is time that we reach for this splendid glorious instrument of evolution, the mind that we have and that is so important for everything else, and give it due respect. But giving it due respect also means celebrating it, realizing that the joy of the universe is the joy of having a joyous mind.

I remember being really excited by a book I read in high schoola book by Will Durant entitled The Pleasures of Philosophy. It excited me because here was an opportunity to explore ideas, to study ideas, to see how people thought and the ways they perceived the world around them. And yet, what I saw of philosophy in school courses was often, as you say, pedantic. It was presented as taking dusty ideas out of the past and saying, okay, this is the way they thought and this is what you learn. It was not an evolutionary process. Ideas from fine past were being dusted off and looked at in contemporary times, but philosophy wasnt a growing animal. In contrast, when I come in touch with your work, its clear that youre evolving a philosophy that is both: mew and at the same time influenced by older and other philosophies. What are these influences? What has most influenced you to move in the direction of this new philosophy?

One doesnt have to be pedantic in order to be profound. And indeed, when I look at the history of philosophy, the great philosophical systems, the great philosophers were those who had the courage to confront problems. When you read their texts, they are exciting although at times difficult. Philosophy for me is exciting because it tries to confront those ultimate questions which are always at the back of our minds.

I was converted to philosophyor seduced to philosophyby Plato in my teenage years in Poland. I read voluminously, almost everything. Alter reading great French writers such as Balzac, Maupassant, and others, I discovered the Greek writers. I read Sophocles, Euripides, and then stumbled upon Plato, whom I first read as a poet. But the reading was so fascinating, and the kind of fictionscience fictionhe unveiled was so spellbinding that I couldnt recover from it. To this day, I dont know whether Plato was one of the greatest fiction writers or one of the greatest philosophers in his attempts to discover what reality is all about.

Of late, I am of the opinion that the greatest philosophical and metaphysical systems are as much created as they are discovered. By this, I mean that by imposing a certain architecture on reality, we weave the whole reality around this architecture and then consider this reality as objective. While doing this, we forget that the original blueprint (to which reality conforms) is the human invention. And to that degree, all metaphysics and all reality is human invention!

You gather from those remarks that Plato was one of the greatest and most lasting influences on me. But then one had to move on. While studying in Poland, I got under the spell of analytical philosophy. At that time, Plato was called an old-fashioned metaphysician, a fuddy-duddy. One was encouraged to believe in semantic analysis, in logical calculus, in propositional calculus. The power of logic was supposed to be our salvation. There was a kind of messianic message behind analytical philosophy: If we get our language straight, if we get our mental hygiene right, then well be able to solve all problems. This myth prevailed until the 1950s. After that time, the leading minds, that had invented this myth, one after another renounced and recanted it.

However, lesser minds have never been able to do so. We are under the spell of those lesser minds who are perpetuating the myth that analysis is the only philosophy while completely forgetting what analytical philosophy was supposed to be about. It was supposed to be about getting the language clear and precise, so that we could tackle all the problems and solve them satisfactorily.

Present philosophy has become sharpening tools for sharpening tools. Because academic philosophy does not help us in understanding the world and ourselves, we turn away from it. However, we also are aware that because of the unprecedented problems that have emerged in the second half of the twentieth centurysuch as nuclear waste, the looming ecological catastrophe, and, last but not least, understanding the universe and matter brought about by the new advances of astrophysics and quantum physicswe cannot find solutions to our dilemmas in past philosophies.

Thus, we need to create a philosophy appropriate for our times and our problems. I am neither decrying all philosophy nor advocating a return to the pastbe it Plato, the Upanishads, or some other mystical tradition. I am in favor of creating a new, comprehensive holistic philosophy suitable for the age of ecology which is dawning on us.

In The Theater of the Mind, you wrote something that I had experienced in my own life; and that is the incredible similarity inn the philosophies espoused by de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo. Though they were in some sense contemporary, they didnt know one another, and you make the connection between them. De Chardin was a Catholic, Sri Aurobindo was an Indian, came out of the Hindu system. How about that connection? What does it mean?

Teilhard de Chardin was one of the great influences on me in recent times. I have been fascinated by his story of evolution as one of the most thrilling adventures of the human mind.

To try to reconstruct and shed light on such a phenomenon as total evolution is like holding the whole universe, from its inception, in ones palm. Ive tried to puzzle out how Teilhard arrived at his system. When I discovered Sri Aurobindo, who arrived at a very similar system, I couldnt believe it. There is, of course, the theory that the zeitgeist has worked through both of them. Zeitgeist or not, I thought there must have been some influences.

So, when I was at Pondicherry in southern India, where Sri Aurobindo Ashram is located, I finally got to some people who knew the entire opus of Aurobindo and also were aware of Bergson. One lady had done a doctorate dissertation at the Sorbonne on Bergson and Aurobindo. I said to myself, Right, this must be the connection. I asked her point blank, How much did Aurobindo learn from Bergson? She said, The influence is so great that I would not be able to distinguish one from the other.

We know, of course, that Teilhard was very greatly influenced by Bergson as well. Therefore, this is the connection. Bergsons influence is really tremendous, though not obvious.

You see, evolution goes on. And so does our evolution about the meaning and the significance of evolution. Darwin published his Origin of the Species in 1859. It was exactly the year in which Henri Bergson was born1859. When Bergson was a mature man, about forty or forty-five, the whole impact of Darwin was already absorbed. Therefore, Bergson could really accept the idea but also look at it in a different way. This is what he did. He came up with the idea of creative evolution. He conceived of evolution not merely as a process of chance and necessityas Monod and other Darwinists and neo-Darwinists tried to make us believebut as something much more subtle, much more miraculous. In his work Creative Evolution, he put this point across, and it is from those views that both Aurobindo and Teilhard learned. Now, when we move into the second part of the twentieth century, the impact of Bergson is already more accepted. One of the evolutionary biologists, Theodosius Dobzhansky, said: As it was important in the nineteenth century to see the connection between the human species and other speciesthat we are brothers of chimpanzee and other apes and other animalsso it is equally important in the twentieth century to see what distinguishes us from lower forms of life. What I see as happening is that we are articulating the idea of evolution. And it is such an awesome, complex, and beautiful idea that we are far from fully understanding it.

My whole book, The Theater of line Mind, is a series of articulations of the idea of evolution. In a sense, it is a celebration of evolution through the dancing mind, through the theater of the mind.

Henryk, what about the idea of the super jump, the quantum jump that can occur from one thing to another? One often thinks of evolution as gradual, taking thousands of years. And yet, throughout history we see this indication of the quantum jump. What about that?

Well, in a sense we are all waiting for this quantum leap of evolution that will carry us all to the realm of enlightenment whereby like pure angels well be able to solve all our problems. I think that this state may be a bit away from us still. However, I accept the idea that evolution does not progress smoothly from one stage to another. It is not like building a pyramid. Evolution is discontinuous process whereby after a discontinuity occurs there is a leap to a new level, and this you can trace in various ways.

Take the history of science. Until the second half of the twentieth century, the view prevailed that science is like a monolithic pyramid to which scientists, like masons, add one stone each. If you look at the picture of the evolution of science as presented nowadays by such people as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, it is a different picture altogether. It is a dramatic picture, a discontinuous picture, reminding us more of a kind of Shakespearean stage in which main actorsbasic theorieslike kings in old tragedies are slain and new ones emerge. Alter a new paradigm emerges, the old paradigm is dc throned like an old dynasty.

This is also confirmed by psychologists, according to whom our own individual development does not proceed smoothly from year to year. At certain points, there are periods of tension which is so great that we do not know who we are any more. After the process of inner transformation, as it were, a new person has emerged. For instance, a teenager has become a young adult,

The Polish psychologist Dombrowski, calls this process of inner transformation through pain positive disintegration: Disintegration of an older personality occurs and a new personality emerges. The person has been able to reintegrate. Hence positive disintegration. But some do not make it. And hence the tragedy. This kind of process occurs not only once, but probably three or four times. We shed off the old skin in pain in order to acquire a new one. Thus, we can see that in actual life evolution proceeds through continuous stages, but also through discontinuous ones.

A similar idea is also expressed, though in different terms, by Ilya Prigogine. He talks about dissipative structures which occur when an organism or environment is under such great stress that it is unable to bear it any more: There occurs a disintegration, after which there is a reintegration on a new level whereby the old tensions and stresses can be accommodated. This is another way of acknowledging that evolution is discontinuous. When unable to bear old stresses, forms of life reintegrate on a new level. I think those are different names for a very similar idea. A leap is made which is accompanied by pains and some trauma.

I am inclined to think that we as a civilization are going through a similar process. Hence so much tension and pain in societies and individuals. There is no way of knowing what will be the result of this leap. The nature of the emergent evolution is such that the new stage, the emerging stage, is unsimilar to the previous one. Let us hope that it will be a truly creative one and that it will enable us to find structures and solutions adequate to our present problems.

You mention that evolutionary change frequently involves pain and trauma. We can apply that to our own individual evolution as well, our own individual living of life amid growing and evolving. Sometimes, we go through painful times, traumatic times, and yet, usually after that period is behind us we can see how it was a growing process. We can see how we went into that stage as one person and, out of the process of the pain and the trauma, we became another person. Au evolutionary process took place there at an individual level.

Quite so. But it is much easier to see it after the fact than when we are in the period of transition and pain. Those periods are confusing, because we are in between two stages, in between two paradigms, as it were.

The point is that individual evolution happens in the same way as the macroevolution does. I think that is an interesting point to make, that personal evolution is the same as planetary evolution. And that would make the connection, too, that as we evolve so also will the planet and the cosmos evolve.

It is perhaps a thought to think of, but not to celebrate, that pain may be a precondition of growth. We do not want to acknowledge the idea while we are in the process of pain. But perhaps it is inevitable that real growth is accompanied by pain because it is the pain of transition from one state of being, within which we are comfortable, to another state of being. Becoming is always difficult.

There is a Buddhist prayer that actually asks for suffering because that is the way to growth, that is the way to enlightenment.

That is beautifully put.

Sometimes we need, and it can help us, to see our suffering in a different way and experience it.

Let us reflect deeper on our culture which so often tries to avoid suffering at all costs. The consequence is that avoiding suffering at all costs happens at the great cost of developing a kind of anesthesia, and this itself is a form of suffering. I would rather acknowledge the suffering as an instrument of vital growth than have the numbness that leads to atrophy and another form of suffering. To put it briefly: As long as we live, as long as we grow, as long as we become, we must not avoid suffering because this is how this universe is made. In the universe of angels it may be different, but in the universe of contingent human beings that is just the way it is.

I could be wrong about this, but my sense is that often, when we think of philosophy, we tend to see it as some kind of subject that gets studied. We go to books and study someones philosophy, what they wrote, what they put out, maybe centuries ago, or more recently. Its a particular philosophy, and we study it. And somehow, in that process we lose something of the value of philosophy. Id like to hear you talk about how you see the relevance of philosophy to the living of our lives, even the relevance of the study of philosophy to mow we live our life. Does philosophy have anything to do with what we are doing?

It has a great deal. One way of looking at philosophy is to consider it as the study of ideas of the past. Very respectable, very good for your general knowledge. But there is another way. You then look at philosophy and consider it as a form of life. Philosophy is a form of life itself. What we witness today is a separation of philosophy from life because in our atomized, analytical society everything is separated from everything else. No wonder culture atrophies.

In a society in which everything is separated and analyzed ad nauseam, philosophy is on one shelf and life is on another shelfand indeed so often life is on a shelf. When I talk about the relevance of philosophy for life, I think I am not alone. In his book Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher emphasizes very strongly that the most important task for our times is not so much an economic reconstruction, although this is vital and necessary, but what he calls a metaphysical reconstruction or a religious reconstructionlooking deeper into our philosophical and metaphysical foundations and seeing what has gone wrong. In this sense, philosophy is vital, because many of our problems stem from the fact that we started to look at the universe in too limited a way from the seventeenth century on. The metaphor of the universe as a clocklike mechanism has constricted not only the meaning of the universe and the meaning of cosmos for us, but also the meaning of our own life. We have somehow strangled ourselves.

So, what I am trying to do in Eco-philosophy and other books is to look for alternative philosophical and metaphysical foundations. We have to realize that the mechanistic way is only one way and not the best one. It is pernicious nowadays. Although it has brought great material rewards, it is counterproductive in the long run. We have to create another matrix, another architecture around which we can weave reality and the cosmos. It must be an architecture of the Cosmos within which our life can breathe, and thereby our philosophy will be life-enhancing. We need to establish a symbiotic relationship with the cosmos and other forms of life. This cannot be done within the mechanistic universe which splits and disintegrates everything in the mortuary of our analytical thinking.

Life-enhancing philosophy is one that tries to bring to bear such a conception of the universe which is home for Man. In it, we are part of the flowering of the great blossom of evolution. Within such a conception of the universe, we are not pitted against other forms of life and especially we are not pitted against each other.

On top of the mechanistic conception of the universe, we have grafted Social Darwinism, homo hominæ lupus est, man is wolf to a man. And those two conceptions, which are philosophical par excellence, are working towards our own undoing.

What I am saying is the following: Our philosophical roots are not-nourishing us any more. They are responsible for our plight. Well have to change those roots, this whole foundation, so that it becomes again a tree that is nourishing us, that connects us with the universe, with other forms of life, and with our ultimate destiny which some call God. We cannot live in a shattered, meaningless universe. Human being craves for meaning and this meaning is part of our nature. So rethinking our foundations is not only an intellectual exercise, it is part of the quest for meaning. It is our existential necessity.

To that degree, I not only do not apologize for what lam doing. On the contrary, I think that I am a part of a new wave whereby life takes itself seriously again and wants to assert itself in meaningful formssimply wants to flourish. The Theater of the Mind is homage paid to life, which not only crawls but also has the capacity to fly.

Hearing what you are saying, it seems to me that a life-enhancing philosophy would go beyond the notion that there is only rational thinking and would include the intuitive process. Intuition so often gets excluded when philosophy is presented as a rational, linear, logical-mechanistic type of process.

In my conception of the mind in The Theater of the Mind, I distinguish three minds. The first I call analytical or discursive mind. The second I call the mind that is made of all the sensitivities that evolution has developed. Intuition, compassion, and aesthetic appreciation are included within the second mind. We can enjoy various aspects of the universe only insofar as we possess appropriate faculties. I call these faculties appropriate sensitivities. Through them, we elicit from the universe what is there. Among those faculties, intuition, insight, emotional responses are very important.

When we look at each other, straight eyes to eyes, we see much more than the eyes. We see the whole soul of the other person. We see in a sense the whole history of the person. We see the whole history of the species. This is not an exaggeration. Because eye-contacts are so important, because we have this sensitivity built into our eyes, built into our mind, we can carry on many conversations beyond mere words. We talk eye-to-eye.

In my Mind 2, love is also included. Love as an evolutionary, and existential, phenomenon is both emotional and rational. As long as human beings is both beautiful and rational. We do not need to apologize for it. We need to celebrate it.

The scope of what I call Mind 2 includes all the sensitivities that evolution has ever evolved, from the first tropisms of an amoeba to the genius of Einstein. Mind 2 is the whole spectrum of these sensitivities. Within this spectrum, human life is lived. We need to evolve a new broadened concept of rationality which accounts for the whole spectrum, for the entire mind. We dont want to throw out rationality and become anti-rational or totally emotional. I insist that both rationality and emotions, insight and abstract reasons are capacities which evolution and human beings have evolved and which we enjoy.

All these sensitivities have to be incorporated into a larger symphony of life, plus those other faculties, sensitivities in status nascendi, which have not yet been fully articulatedas, for example, premonitions. As evolution is not completed, new sensitivities are being articulated. The third eye is perhaps this sensitivity which enables us to see beyond seeing. So often, we do seem to be able to see beyond seeing. What is the phenomenon of extrasensory perception if not the phenomenon of seeing what our eyes cannot see?

There is a way of integrating all those developmentsfrom the development of the first reactions of the amoba to the development of faculties in mystics and in people with extrasensory perceptionthat makes sense within the spectrum of the sensitivities of evolution. It is for this whole spectrum that we have to create a new rationality. I think that we can do it. And we can rationally defend it. I myself refuse to be browbeaten by narrow rationalists who try to intimidate us by telling us that the searches beyond the empirical that extend to the mystical are not rational, and therefore are not worthy of human beings.

We need to salute evolution in all its flowering. We need to see its greatness in our capacity for compassion and in our capacity for abstract logic. The riches of evolution are immense. We have every right to participate in them because we are a flowering of evolution. We also have the responsibility to defend this participation as a rational process.

It occurs to mire, Henryk, what could one do that is more important than exploring, ideas and seeking wisdom? What else do people do?

I am glad that you have said it. We must be aware that exploring ideas and seeking wisdom have a great value. But we must not stop at this stage. We in the West have a great propensity to be little squirrels, to hold on to those great ideas and think that because we have read them all, accumulated them in our abstract coconut, these ideas themselves will make our life better, fuller, and more beautiful.

I think the second stage is to be able to translate those ideas into our lifestyles, and I think that in this process the Eastern philosophies are much better. We in the West arc very long on theory and short on practice. In the East, I often feel, it is the other way around. They are very long on practice and often short on theory. In the West, you have the paradox that you cannot act upon the idea unless you understand it. So, we create elaborate great theories and we try to convince ourselves that the theory is right. But in the end, we do not do anything with it.

Henryk, you just struck a chord. I used to feel that, too, about the Eastern approach. When I first became exposed to Hindu philosophy, the Upanishads and Vedanta, there was an emphasis on getting the experience of becoming one with the universe, as opposed to developing time philosophy behind that experience. Then I came in touch with the Tibetans. And its really extraordinary. They emphasize the practice, but they have an incredible philosophy behind it. They have what seems to be an endless supply of literature and tradition. Its recorded in writing, and is the bedrock philosophy of their practice.

Yes. I have envied Tibetan monks for their capacity to lead a connected life wherever fate and vicissitudes brought them. They seem to be able not only to survive, hut to flourish in such a way that they become exemplars. We look at their lives and wonder how it is possible to have such a connected life in those very distressing and disintegrating times. It may be so because of their integrated philosophy, whereby general Buddhist philosophy is combined with rigorous practices and yogas which make this philosophy ones inner reality.

When I was commenting on the paradox of the Western mind, what I meant to suggest is that so often after we have learned the theory we say: Well, now I know the theory, and the theory should work for me. And we stop at that. This is not really a living philosophy. I think that for the last three centuries we have over-emphasized the abstract quality of knowledge and the importance of ideas in ones mind at the expense of life as a living form. So many great minds, including the Buddha, said that the art of living is second to none. What is important, therefore, is to be able to find the ways whereby good ideas are interiorized, whereby they reach the level of our being, change our consciousness, and we become them.

For this reason, I have developed of late, as a parallel to my Eco-philosophy, what I call eco-yoga. At first when one hears the term, one thinks its a bit of a joke. But it isnt, because no good ideas, no good principles, no wisdom that one accumulates in the abstract part of our brain is good enough unless it can inform you how to live. Unless it becomes living wisdom, it is not wisdom.

To find a way whereby a good idea is translated into the layers of your being is itself a creative act. For this reason, I have claimed that we have to make a radical transition in our culture from what I call the methodology of objectivity to the methodology of participation. The whole of life is participation, while methodology of objectivity in a sense denies this idea. Within our methodology of objectivity, everything is an object, set apart, put in the laboratory and cut with our analytical scalpels. In contrast, the methodology of participation is based on empathy, on understanding other forms of life in their own termson understanding the underlying unity of it all. It is a holistic one. It is one that requires that you take responsibility for all. If you are aware that you are a part of a greater whole, you have to take responsibility for this whole.

My eco-yoga is a part of this methodology of participation. It took us time to develop fully the methodology of objectivity to where it became enshrined in our schools of academia. So it may take us a considerable time for new insights to be transformed into new participatory strategies, whereby our research and our learning will be based on the idea of participation, empathy, compassion, rather than dissecting, objectivizing, and separating.

Sounds to me, Henryk, like a Western philosopher has taken on the non-dualistic thinking of the East.

When you look at evolution holistically, you realize that it is one total process. You remember our friend Anaxagoras, who was Socrates teacher. Anaxagoras claimed that all is mind. Then the history of philosophy developed along different avenues. But now when you look at how important mind is in co-creating with the universe in creating realities, it makes sense to say that at a certain point of analysis, mind becomes indistinguishable from reality itself. This conception I call Mind 3to return to our earlier discussionmind as coextensive with reality. The idea of mind, nous, in Anaxagoras, is so important that it is conceivable to think about the doctrine which I call noetic monism, one which asserts that mind is inherently woven in every aspect of reality and every perception of it. Through this conception of mind, we can resolve many of the spurious dichotomies and various dualisms which we inherited from Descartes on. Our various activitiesloving, doing logic, creating new worldsare parts of the same mind. Doing different things, we are all parts of the same mind which functions in different capacities.

Youre talking about what might be called universal mind, that were plugged into.

Universal mind, thats rightof which we are aspects and which we articulate. I think that this idea of non-dualism, Aviate in Hindu philosophy, can be now justified in a new rational way. Part of my rethinking concerning the nature and place of mind in the universe goes in this direction.

We have to simultaneously redefine three things: reality, knowledge, and the mind. By trying to understand one part of it, we simultaneously throw light on the other two parts. For each concept defines the other two. The conception of mind informs you what knowledge is and what reality is. Conversely, a given conception of knowledge immediately delineates for you the scope of the mind and of reality. It follows that if we start with a wrong concept of realityfor example, that it is some kind of clock-like mechanism that is detached from uswe immediately receive a distorted conception of knowledge, one that accentuates the accumulation of physical fact; we also receive a very screwed-up conception of mind as a Tabula Rasa, a blank sheet of paper on which experience writes. You can see that if you make one basic step that is wrong, the whole thing falls into pieces. This is what happens with Western culture and Western philosophy. We have to reconstruct it. You and I.

So you and I. And youre suggesting too that we have to take our minds, our little minds, and expand our notion of what our minds may be capable of.

Our little minds which, I put it to you, are not so little if we allow them to be as great as they potentially are.

(From: At the Leading Edge: New Visions of Science, Spirituality, and Society, 14 interviews hosted by Michael Toms, Larson Publications.)

 

 

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