Knowing Your Place

Decentralization is a prerequisite for the rekindling of community in Western society. Mobility erodes community, but as we put down roots and feel attachment to a place, our human relationships deepen, become more secure, and - as they continue over time - more reliable.

The broader sense of self in traditional Ladakhi society contrasts with the individualism of Western culture. A Ladakhi's identity is to a great extent molded by close bonds with other people, and is reinforced by the Buddhist emphasis on interconnectedness.

People are supported in a network of relationships that spread in concentric circles around them - family, farm, neighbourhood, village. In the West we pride ourselves on our individualism, but sometimes individualism is a euphemism for isolation. We tend to believe that a person should be completely self-sufficient, that he or she should not need anybody else.

The closely knit relationships in Ladakh seem liberating rather than oppressive, and have forced me to reconsider the whole concept of freedom. This is not as surprising as it might appear. Psychological research is verifying the importance of intimate, reliable, and lasting relations with others in creating a positive self-image. We are beginning to recognize how this in turn is the foundation for healthy development.

Ladakhis score very highly in terms of self-image. It is not something conscious; it is perhaps closer to a total absence of self-doubt, a profound sense of security. This inner security breeds tolerance and an acceptance of others with all their differences.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.186-7


I was with about fifteen Ladakhis and two students from Calcutta on the back of a truck taking us along the bumpy and dusty road from Zanskar. As the journey went on, the students became restless and uncomfortable and began pushing at a middle-aged Ladakhi who had made a seat for himself out of a sack of vegetables.

Before long, the older man stood up so that the students - who were about twenty years younger than him - could sit down. When, after about two hours, we stopped for a rest, the students indicated to the Ladakhi that they wanted him to fetch water for them; he fetched the water. They then more or less ordered him to make a fire and boil tea for them.

He was effectively being treated as a servant - almost certainly for the first time in his life. Yet there was nothing remotely servile in his behaviour; he merely did what was asked of him as he might for a friend - without obsequiousness and with no loss of dignity. I was fuming, but he and the other Ladakhis, far from being angered or embarrassed by the way he was being treated, found it all amusing and nothing more. The old man was so relaxed about who he was that he had no need to prove himself.

I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are, of course, complex and spring from a whole way of life and world view. But I am sure that the most important factor is the sense that you are part of something much larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.84-5


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Get "Real"

While I was staying with the Smanla family in the village of Stok, I heard the father and grandmother talking about the future of the youngest son. Their conversation was typical of many. Abi (Grandmother) wanted the boy to become a monk. She said every family should have someone in the monastery. But the father was eager for him to have a modern education so he could get a job in the government.

Even though the father was religious, he wanted his son learn the new ways. An older son, Nyingma, was already studying at the agricultural college in Kashmir. Abi said, "Look at what happened to Nyingma when he went away to school. Now he has no respect for religion anymore."

Yes," said the father, "but soon he'll be able to earn money, and that's necessary these days. How can we know what's best? Here in the village we don't understand the new ways."

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.108-9

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Firm Foundations

Before feeling my way into Ladakhi culture, I had thought that leaving home was part of growing up, a necessary step toward becoming an adult. I now believe that large extended families and small intimate communities form a better foundation for the creation of mature, balanced individuals.

A healthy society is one that encourages close social ties and mutual interdepedence, granting each individual a net of unconditional emotional support. Within this nurturing framework, individuals feel secure enough to become quite free and independent.

Paradoxically, I have found the Ladakhis less emotionally dependent than we are in industrial society. There is love and friendship, but it is not intense or grasping - not a possession of one person by another.

I once saw a mother greeting her eighteen-year-old son when he returned home after being away for a year. She seemed surprisingly calm, as though she had not missed him. It took me a long time to understand this behaviour.

I thought my Ladakhi friends reacted strangely when I arrived back after being away for the winter. I had brought presents I knew they would like. I expected them to be pleased to see me and happy at the gifts. But to them it was as if I had not been gone. They thanked me for the presents, but not in the way that I was hoping. I was wanting them to look excited and confirm our special friendship. I was disappointed. Whether I had been away for six months or a day, they treated me in the same way.

I came to realize, however, that the ability to adjust to any situation, to feel happy regardless of the circumstances, was a tremendous strength. I came to appreciate the easy, relaxed attitude of my Ladakhi friends and to like being treated as though I had never been away.

Ladakhis do not seem to be as attached to anything as we are. Most of them are, of course, not completely without the attachments that so affect our lives. But again, there is a difference - an all pervasive difference - in degree. One may be unhappy to see a friend leave or to lose something, but not that unhappy.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.86-7

Images from "Another Year" (dir. Mike Leigh, 2010)

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Where physics ends (and metaphysics begins)

Physics is unable to stand on its own feet, but needs a metaphysics on which to support itself, whatever fine airs it may assume towards the latter.

[...] Certainly the whole present condition of all things in the world or in nature must necessarily be capable of explanation from purely physical causes. But such an explanation - supposing one actually succeeded so far as to be able to give it - must always just as necessarily be burdened with two essential imperfections [...] On account of these imperfections, everything so explained would still really remain unexplained.

The first imperfection is that the beginning of the chain of causes and effects that explains everything, in other words, of the connected and continuous changes, can positively never be reached, but, just like the limits of the world in space and time, recedes incessantly and in infinitum.

The second imperfection is that all the efficient causes from which everything is explained always rest on something wholly inexplicable, that is, on the original qualities of things and the natural forces that make their appearance in them.

[...] Accordingly there is not a fragment of clay, however little its value, that is not entirely composed of inexplicable qualities. Therefore these two inevitable defects in every purely physical, i.e., causal, explanation indicate that such an explanation can be only relatively true, and that its whole method and nature cannot be the only, the ultimate and hence sufficient one, in other words, cannot be the method that will ever be able to lead to the satisfactory solution of the difficult riddle of things, and to the true understanding of the world and of existence; but that the physical explanation, in general and as such, still requires one that is metaphysical, which would furnish the key to all its assumptions, but for that very reason would have to follow quite a different path.

The first step to this is that we should bring to distinct consciousness and firmly retain the distinction between the two, that is, the difference between physics and metaphysics. In general this difference rests on the Kantian distinction between phenomena and thing-in-itself.

[...] As for the motion of the projected bullet, so also for the thinking of the brain, a physical explanation in itself must ultimately be possible which would make the latter just as comprehensible as the former.

But the former, which we imagine we understand so perfectly, is at bottom just as obscure to us as the latter; for whatever the inner nature of expansion in space, of impenetrability, mobility, hardness, elasticity, and gravity may be - it remains, after all physical explanations, just as much a mystery as thinking does.

But because in the case of thought the inexplicable stands out most immediately, a jump was at once made here from physics to metaphysics, and a substance of quite a different kind from everything corporeal was hypostatized; a soul was set up in the brain.

Yet if we were not so dull as to be capable of being struck only by the most remarkable phenomenon, we should have to explain digestion by a soul in the stomach, vegetation by a soul in the plant, elective affinity by a soul in the reagents, in fact the falling of a stone by a soul in the stone.

Therefore in the same way, physical explanation everywhere comes across what is metaphysical, and by this is reduced to nought, in other words, ceases to be explanation.

[In materialism we see] the unceasing attempt to set up a system of physics without metaphysics, in other words, a doctrine that would make the phenomenon into the thing-in-itself [...] They endeavour to show that all phenomena are physical, even those of the mind; and rightly so, only they do not see that everything physical is, on the other hand, metaphysical also. Without Kant, however, this is difficult to see, for it presupposes the distinction of the phenomena from the thing-in-itself.

[...] Even behind atheism, in itself absurd and often spiteful, there lies, as its inner meaning and truth that gives it strength, the obscure conception of such an absolute system of physics without metaphysics.

Certainly such a system would necessarily be destructive for ethics, and just as theism has been falsely regarded as inseparable from morality, this is really true only of a system of metaphysics in general, in other words, of the knowledge that the order of nature is not the only and absolute order of things. We can therefore set this up as the necessary credo of all righteous and good men: "I believe in a system of metaphysics."

In this respect it is important and necessary for us to be convinced of the untenable nature of an absolute system of physics, the more so as such a system, namely naturalism proper, is a view that of its own accord and ever anew forces itself on man, and can be done away with only by deeper speculation.

[...] Beginningless and endless causal series, inscrutable fundamental forces, endless space, beginningless time, infinite divisibility of matter, and all this further conditioned by a knowing brain, in which alone it exists just like a dream and without which it vanishes - all these things constitute the labyrinth in which naturalism leads us incessantly round and round.

[...] however great the advances which physics (understood in the wide sense of the ancients) may make, not the smallest step towards metaphysics will be made in this way [...] For such advances will always supplement only knowledge of the phenomenon, whereas metaphysics strives to pass beyond the phenomenal appearance to that which appears [...]

Metaphysics [...] remains immanent, and does not become transcendent; for it never tears itself entirely from experience, but remains the mere interpretation and explanation thereof, as it never speaks of the thing-in-itself otherwise than in its relation to the phenomenon.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.172-7, 183

How do you take your metaphysics?

By metaphysics I understand all so-called knowledge that goes beyond the possibility of experience, and so beyond nature or the given phenomenal appearance of things, in order to give information about that which, in some sense or other, this experience or nature is conditioned, or in popular language, about that which is hidden behind nature, and renders nature possible.

But the great original difference in the powers of understanding, and also their cultivation, which requires much leisure, cause so great a variety among men that, as soon as a nation has extricated itself form the uncultured state, no one metaphysical system can suffice for all.

Therefore in the case of civilized nations we generally come across two different kinds of metaphysics, distinguished by the fact that the one has its verification and credentials in itself, the other outside itself.

As the metaphysical systems of the first kind require reflection, culture, leisure, and judgement for the recognition of their credentials, they can be accessible only to an extremely small number of persons [...]

The systems of the second kind, on the other hand, are exclusively for the great majority of people who are not capable of thinking but only of believing, and are susceptible not to arguments, but only to authority.

[...] A system of the first kind, that is, a philosophy, makes the claim, and therefore has the obligation, to be true sensu stricto et proprio in all that it says, for it appeals to thought and conviction.

A religion, on the other hand, has only the obligation to be true sensu allegorico, since it is destined for the innumerable multitude who, being incapable of investigating and thinking, would never grasp the profoundest and most difficult truths sensu proprio. Before the people truth cannot appear naked.

[...] Therefore, not only the contradictory but also the intelligible dogmas are really only allegories and accommodations to the human power of comprehension [...] This allegorical nature of religions also exempts them from the proofs incumbent on philosophy, and in general from scrutiny and investigation.

[...] We therefore see that in the main, and for the great majority unable to devote themselves to thinking, religions fill very well the place of metaphysics in general, the need of which man feels to be imperative.

They do this partly for a practical purpose as the guiding star of their action, as the public standard of integrity and virtue, as Kant admirably expresses it; partly as the indispensable consolation in the deep sorrows of life.

In this they completely take the place of of an objectively true system of metaphysics, since they lift man above himself and above existence in time, as well, perhaps, as such a system ever could. In this their great value, indeed their indispensability is quite clearly to be seen. For Plato rightly says: "It is impossible for the crowd to be philosophically enlightened."

The controversy between supernaturalists and rationalists, carried on so incessantly in our own day, is due to the failure of both to recognize the allegorical nature of all religion.

[...] Religions are necessary for the people, and are an inestimable benefit to them. But if they attempt to oppose the progress of mankind in the knowledge of truth, then with the utmost possible indulgence and forbearance they must be pushed on one side. And to require that even a great mind - a Shakespeare or a Goethe - should make the dogmas of any religion his implicit conviction, bona fide et sensu proprio, is like requiring a giant to put on the shoes of a dwarf.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.164, 166-8

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Crossing the Gulf

The intellect is calculated for the maintenance of the individual alone, and, as a rule is barely sufficient even for this.

But nature has wisely been very sparing in granting a larger measure; for the mind of limited capacity can survey the few and simple relations that lie within the range of its narrow sphere of action, and can handle the levers of these with much greater ease than the eminent mind could. Such a mind takes in an incomparably greater and richer sphere and works with long levers.

Thus the insect sees everything on its little stem and leaf with the most minute accuracy and better than we can; but it is not aware of a man who stands three yards from it. On this rests the slyness of the dull and stupid, and this paradox: "There is a mystery in the minds of those who have none."

For practical life genius is about as useful as an astronomer's telescope is in a theatre.

[...] For the intellect is a differentiating, and consequently separating, principle. Its different gradations, much more even than those of mere culture, give everyone different concepts, in consequence of which everyone lives to a certain extent in a different world, in which he meets directly only his equals in rank, but can attempt to call to the rest and make himself intelligible to them only from a distance.

Great differences in the degree, and thus the development, of the understanding open a wide gulf between one man and another, which can be crossed only by kindness of heart. This, on the other hand, is the unifying principle that identifies everyone else with one's own self.

The connexion, however, remains a moral one; it cannot become intellectual.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.145-6


My heart is ruled by Venus
And my head by Mars

[Thin Lizzy]
Lyrics from "Warriors"