— — the mirrors that have the potential to show what we are not!
The real crisis of modern ‘civilization’ and the potential of the non-literate communities has been the ‘subject’ of my exploration since 1989. After completing my post-graduation in Design, I got a chance to visit the Ao tribe, one of the 8 or 9 tribes in Nagaland. I stayed there for only fourteen days, but that was enough for me to begin my journey to relook at the modern man’s assumptions.
Later while living and working with a potters’ community in a village in Orissa, in 1991, I started becoming aware of the differences between the nonliterate people and the literate modern man.
During my stay there I continued my habit of reading all types of books- sociology, anthropology, philosophy, etc- that I thought would help me to ‘understand’ the life of rural people and to understand my own predicament as a colonized person. I remember reading Walden, by Thoreau in which he has described his experiences in detail. Halfway through the book, I realized the dichotomy I was living in. I was in a beautiful place surrounded by mountains, a beautiful river flowing nearby where people went about their daily activities. The village was completely self-sufficient with weavers, bamboo artisans, farmers, a community that looks after cattle- gollols , a traditional Vaidya (doctor), a blacksmith, carpenters, barbers. I was living in the potters’ colony with about six to eight households, even eating with them.
I suddenly became aware of the fallacy of my life. Instead of ‘living’ I was engrossed in the imaginary experiences and seeing the world through the conceptual constructs of the modern mind. Instead of observing the people directly, I was seeing them through the various conceptual frameworks created by the western sociologists and anthropologists.
This was a profound realization for me; that day I stopped reading.
When I look back, I feel this was possibly the beginning of the dismantling of the institutionalized cognitive frames that had made me see myself as the ‘savior’, hence superior, began to happen.
The negative mirror was beginning to emerge.
The specialty of the negative mirror is that its capacity for reflecting what we are not, gets better and better as we become more and more open to seeing what we are not! It is a process-oriented mirror that makes seeing clearer as more and more of the layers of conditioning are peeled off.
Even though we are equipped by life to see the world as it is, the educated get trained not to use their senses but to see the world as per their mental constructs. Such a society then builds a narrative to establish its psychological dominance by constructing a worldview that helps it to continue and propagate this story. Modernity as progressive, scientific, advanced in every way and even on the evolutionary path, is an oppressive system against the illiterate and the indigenous considered as backward, uncivilized who need to be ‘saved’ by educating them. It is very difficult to dismantle this narrative from our minds. It is by mere chance that one even gets a glimpse of another way of seeing.
Stopping my reading habit has helped me profoundly. The most important was the rewiring of my cognitive system and thus enabling me to really see what it is, instead of projecting my own imagination. Life of children was the first thing that I began to take notice of, as it was so different from my own childhood and of the people who are supposedly educated and so, ‘progressed’. Living with the Ao people had made me begin to ask who really was civilized, especially when I saw the freedom the children and women had in that community. Even the word ‘freedom’ seemed so contrived as freedom among non-literate communities is a fundamental reality. I found many such meaningless concepts the modern man endlessly talks about but seems to have lost in actual life!
Let us examine another word — ‘sustainability’. When did modern man invent that word? Only after losing it. Sadly, we have still not realized what sustainability actually means, but continue to speak of it in limited, selfish terms, the purview of which is one’s small, immediate existence — either one’s workplace, life, or even nation. Like freedom, sustainability too is an ‘existential’ word which is intrinsically tied to how life exists — it is not an act that modern man has suddenly invented. This is the true alienation of anthropocentric modern man — his disconnection from the existential nature of life. The ‘being-ness’ of nature, is what can show us, the so-called educated, the ‘negative’ mirror. This ‘being-ness’ is how life functions, except with modern ‘educated’ humans.
But we can only see what we are not, provided we are willing to hear our own inner voice that has been trying to inform us whenever we go against the existential nature of life. In fact, our own children provide us with the best negative mirrors, right from the womb, provided we are willing to be led by them in sensing, feeling, listening, but most of all just ‘being’.
The ‘uncivilized’ ‘backward’ illiterates teach us, and we have so much to learn from them, provided we know how to truly learn — and this is to simply follow how all other beings on earth learn — learning as choiceless, natural, not ‘conscious’ or deliberate, but learning as a biological being. To do so is to begin by learning to trust life and not attempt to fit it into our ‘contrived plans’.
The mark of a civilized community must be measured by the conditions it provides for children — the foremost of which is freedom — cognitive freedom — the freedom to know and the freedom to be. This must never be taken away. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are doing to our children in ‘educated’, so-called civilized societies. What we need to make available is a condition in which children live in trust, in unconditional love and care and a state of psychological abundance.
Children in modernity begin their life with fears and insecurities that the parents inadvertently convey to them through a constant exhortation to ‘excel’, ‘achieve’ and other such negative aspirations. They are denied their existential freedom and are force-fed things they do not want and assuredly do not need. They begin their lives with distrust, selfishness, competition, anger, ‘stress’. In fact, the message children receive subliminally, is that they are incapable, incomplete and hence made dependent on adults.
I call this the ‘deficit’ syndrome as against the ‘completeness’ syndrome in which life is seen as not something that needs our intervention to make it better. The children in modernity are treated as something that needs to be made better by the adults’ intervention- through instructions, help, encouragement, etc. In the ‘completeness’ paradigm life is understood as something that is already perfect at each stage in life which does not need intervention but freedom to awaken to its perfectness. ‘Parenting’ among the indigenous illiterate communities was always with this deep trust in life. Adults did not take away freedom and children were granted all the respect and freedom that life needs to awaken and thrive. Mind you- even the word parenting is a modern invention!
Modern man is alienated from his own life as he has been made to depend on and trust the ‘experts’. This is what he gets trained and conditioned from his own childhood which he then imposes on his children. His dependence on the printed word is the beginning of the denial of his senses, feelings, emotions, instincts, insights, and intuition — in short, all the body and experience-related promptings. Distrusting our own experience is what schooling does to us.
So how do we break open the matrix that we are trapped in? How do we even become aware of this trap and the possibility of the negative mirrors? How do we encounter our real loss in the midst of the illusion of ‘progress’ surrounded by material possessions?
More than that, will we even look for such a negative mirror that will challenge our present way of being, the mirror that has the possibility of mirroring what we authentically are but are deeply suppressed under the myth of progress?
Jinan works with Existential Knowledge Foundation, an organization working to initiate inquiry into the cognitive crisis of modernity by organizing online discussions and courses on various topics related to children, learning, cognition, art, play, etc. Please see the link www.ekfoundation.in