This post is going to be the first of several where I hope to look at the connections that lie between ourselves, our communities, our actions in them, and the greater whole to which we all belong. For that purpose, I want the reader to look at themselves as the center of a series of concentric circles. They are in the center, their immediate social circles (family, friends, religious community, etc) are close to them, their wider communities are further out, and the broader the idea we are looking at is (one’s country, humanity, life on earth, and so on) the further out the circle is. Yes, it’s a bit of a strange model to use and I’m not absolutely sure myself how this pondering is going to go, but hey, you’ve been warned that it’s my musings, so it’s time to let the mind wonder.

“Know thyself.” That was the command of the god Apollo inscribed above his temple at Delphi. But what’s the mission that Apollo was sending his devotees on? Some attempt to be “comfortable” or to “accept” themselves, as is the message of a thousand and one self-help courses today? Perhaps an intro to some sort of meditation exercise?

For that matter, what does he mean when he says “yourself”? Perhaps the divine Apollo has the capability of knowing himself at the deepest levels, but what can that do for humans like us, ever changing and limited in self-perception? (For the record, I don’t believe that Apollo is up there on Olympus waiting for us to come to him. He is a myth. But then, as Stephanus of Byzantium said, a myth is a story which “never was, but always is”). Looking back, we can remember a time when our dreams, attitudes, emotional state, and habits were very different from what we observe now. Does that mean that some fundamental essence of our soul underwent a change? When we were very young, we always thought we wanted to be an astronaut or a dinosaur or [enter your childhood fantasy here] when we grew up. We usually have a different idea in mind now. Does that mean that that hope was never really part of who we were, but just an illusion? If that’s the case, how do you know that the love you feel now, the dreams you have now, or the hopes you currently possess are real?

It’s a shocking thing to realize how much of what you think is so important to you can change with the years. We are temporal in nature, after all. We don’t last forever, and the many facets which make up our egos also change every second. The passions which give us pleasure, the sorrows which cause us pain, the potential that every person possesses in them to excel. These desires are often played on in order to get something from us. The marketing executive, the government propagandist, and the artist who wants to stir something deep inside us all have this in common. It is not always a bad thing, but many times it will not be to our benefit. To be aware of this aspect of ourselves is, then, the first step to fulfilling Apollo’s command.

Now, this might be all very interesting to reflect on while reading a blog post in your spare moments, but what impact does this have on us beyond those fleeting moments? Well, just ask yourself: is it useful to let your emotions be manipulated by others, to have your passions played on like a piano by those who make money or gain power from it? Even in our personal lives, how often have we allowed ourselves to be blinded by hate and anger, or hopelessness? Why is it that we keep on buying products that we know harm us and our environment, justifying it by saying that “well, I can treat myself. Why not?” or “I’m just one person, I’m not making a difference anyway”. Why do we give blind allegiance to political candidates and parties we support, favoring them even if we feel a twinge of unease or disagreement with something they said, or feel that perhaps “the other guy” might just have a point?  Developing recognition of these irrational patterns that occur in our inner lives allows us to develop an awareness of when such emotions may be blinding us from a rational course of action, or stopping us from reaching our full potential. Imagine how much richer political debate could be if we could be aware of when a tribal attachment to our ideological band is preventing us from looking at the facts, and if emotion was recognized as playing a role, and thus not confused with reason. I want to cut short any protests of “yeah, sure, but that’s unrealistic because no one would do that” by saying, I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about you. Stay focused. This sort of awareness is only possible through habitual introspection, of course. As Murti says in Central Philosophy of Buddhism:

“Spiritual culture is self-culture … the essence of self-culture is the bringing about a change in oneself, not in the environment… Spiritual culture must be further understood as an intense and sustained self-reflection, self-criticism. It is a ceaseless watchfulness of one’s doings—speech, bodily and mental action. Passions overpower us because of our self-forgetfulness, we are not self-possessed. With mindfulness regained, the passions cease to have hold on us. … the dialectic on the intellectual side is the reflective criticism of the inveterate tendency of the mind to speculate and spin theories …”

Having seen how much ones inner life has an impact on us personally, and, through our interactions, on society as a whole, we can see that it may be in not just our own interests, but also the interests of all society to encourage such introspection. To gain this self-knowledge is not to make judgements on it, not to condemn it as evil or to have a haughty sense of self-importance at ones superior “rationality”. Emotions and passions and dreams, irrational thought they may be, have a great role in defining how we act as humans, and can certainly be for our benefit. But we do not want them to harm us, if this can be avoided. The Bhagavad Gita gives the striking image of Krishna, the incarnation of Divinity, the pure Intellect, holding the reigns of a chariot firm in his hands and guiding the warrior Arjuna in his actions during a great war. In the same way, it is for our benefit that we have awareness of our inner lives, so that we can remain steadfast when passions might lead us to ruin, and when in the most stressful times in our lives we can hold firm when we might be tempted to despair.

The question might come up, of course, as to what sort of direction we want to take if we develop this sense of awareness. What sort of inner life should we be striving to develop? What path should the lifelong evolution of our own selves take? I think that those who are at all inclined to make the sort of introspection discussed here, and consider the question of their own personal development at all, will be naturally inclined to try and better themselves, to practice what I can only call “living intentionally”, that is to say, seeking experiences that will better them, that will test them physically, mentally, and even emotionally and spiritually. The German philosopher Nietzsche described the process as turning life itself into a great work:

“One thing is needful. — To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed — both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable.”

That goal, the goal of living well and living intentionally, is in its essence what I believe that the good life (the buen vivir) can and should aim toward. This is the key to displacing the consumer desires of homo economicus as the master and foundation of our economic order, as the common thing uniting communities and used as justification for this or that policy. When the market, the State, the leader of a nation, and the values of our culture(s) are judged by the extent to which they allow the individual, each according to their own nature, to develop a fulfilling life, one in which they develop fulfillment, character, and inner discipline. In the words of Marx, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

What sorts of societies can achieve this? What sorts of economic and social arrangements? How do we solve problems among the members of a society? Are there any that are already heading in this direction, forging their own path beyond the sphere of Western hegemony…or for that matter, rebelling from within the West against the consensus? We’ll continue this stream of thought as these posts continue. Do add your thoughts to the comments.


The Good Life: A Radical Notion?

Included in the readings of the Land and Food Systems 250 course that the faculty has all second years take is a paper called “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow”, written by Eduardo Gudynas. The central purpose of this paper is to use the indigenous traditions of living a whole and fulfilling life in the context of the wider community, which includes the people, their livelihoods and farms, their religious, ethnic and cultural traditions, their past and hopes for the future, and nature. This idea is called suma qamaña by the Aymara people of Bolivia, Chile and Peru; ñandereko and qhapaj ñan by the Gurani of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. It has many different names and connotations, as befits a principle which can only be manifested in unique communities. Gudynas terms it, simply, buen vivir.

Promoted in the paper as an alternative to the Western development model, the principle has indeed made its way into several constitutions, among them Ecuador and Bolivia. In Ecuador, this has been manifested in the form of several different rights, very much in the western tradition, which recognize the rights of nature, among other things. In Bolivia, it is viewed more as an integral principle on which the rights described in the constitution are based. This again is in line with the fact that its interpretations by different indigenous groups in the two countries impacted how it was implemented into the foundations of the State.

The community in which the good life is taken as a value no longer can adhere to the dominant political and economic model of development as the sole goal of the modernizing country. Rather, development must be taken in a framework in which its purpose is to better an economy meeting the real needs of the community, the needs of people who find value and fulfillment in their communities, through personal relationships with kin, society and their natural lands and surroundings. This is especially important for the vast numbers of landless and small farmers, peasants, rural dwellers indigenous groups and “urban tribes”, that make up a large section of the countries of the global South. That said, it may well be equipped to solve the reported problems of alienation, personal and cultural, experienced by many who want to “make it big” in the cities, and those who, having acquired wealth, wish to give back to their communities.

Those of us in LFS are lucky enough to be at a nexus of activity in Vancouver and the lower mainland, to build sustainable economic and ecological structures and reimagining the community. Given that the city is indeed a very useful combination of locality and community on the one hand, and yet a political entity on the other, we would do well (especially those of us living in the Vancouver area) to become involved in our communities, not simply as part of volunteer work or to put on a resume, but to create a personal connection between ourselves, our home and our communities. The UBC Farm, for example, is a nexus for such communities, which create a new space in which that entity we call Vancouver, the people and land as much as the skyscrapers and city hall, can manifest and develop in new and different ways. The towns (such as Maple Ridge, in which I live) that make up the GVRD can and are evolving similar programs as well.

This shift in values to create an economy which fulfills the needs of the community, rather than communities which can add efficiency to a development scheme which they did not conceive of or vote for, is highly evident in the case of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver who created the warrior State for which it is so famous, believed that wealth created degeneracy, both mental and physical, in those who acquired it. Lying on their fancy couches, growing fat in the dark with fancy food, such people were useless for developing the ethos he believed essential for the survival of the city. When Sparta allowed him to make its laws, he replaced its gold currency with one of iron, worthless outside Sparta and which had to be carried in carts, similar to the situation in late Weimar Germany. Lycurgus, however, believed this extreme devaluation in Sparta’s money to be a good thing, as no one could acquire any great amount of wealth, and those who did were not respected for it. Thus, Sparta’s citizens had to dedicate themselves to their training, developing bonds with their kinsmen and serving the Spartan state in order to prove themselves to their fellows. As time went on, Sparta became renowned for its hand-crafted everyday items, as well as producing men of cultural achievement. But their primary worth for Spartan society lay in their role as warriors. Thus, in order to meet the needs of that society, Lycurgus not only rejected the development of the day, but did what he could to minimize it to bare essentials.

Probably not something to bring to the Economist anytime soon.