A heartfelt intellectual

Dedicated to Roy Bhaskar

The photograph accompanying this piece is of the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, Grahamstown where I am doing my Phd. A heartfelt intellectual home.

At lunchtime today I heard that Roy Bhaskar died after an illness. My first thoughts went to my friend and one of my PhD supervisors, Leigh Price, who has been a loyal and dedicated friend of Roy’s for many years. When I stayed with her in England she would be on the phone to him everyday helping him with is writing and learning from him. I then found myself crying because it feels like some wonderful being had left this earth. I struggle with the intellectual scene. I often find it hard, competitive and heartless. Meeting Roy Bhaskar in Grahamstown, South Africa, gave me the exact opposite feeling. He was warm, heartfelt and not afraid to speak about the possibility of a better world, a kinder people. He believed that compassion was the core of our humaness. What was so apparent was that his philosophy and his writing were for the world. Critical Realist thought was developed for us to take up and use to transform and change.

I met him at a Critical Realism conference held in South Africa in 2012. I was supposed to present at this conference as a new PhD student who was using Critical Realism a philosophical grounding for my study. I hadn’t written a thing two days before the conference. I was in a rebellious, anti-academic mood and also scared. It had been a long time since I’d braved the academic platforms. Then Leigh Price arrived followed by Roy. Leigh was a companion to Roy, showing him around and making sure he was comfortable and all right. Because of this I got to spend quite a bit of time with him. What struck me about him was his open smile and the way he engaged with the world, almost like a child. I didn’t feel like I was in the presence of a great academic rather I felt I was in the presence of someone who always wanted to learn and always wanted to teach. He was also unafraid to talk of ‘love’, ‘spirit’ and ‘compassion’ with as much emphasis and interest as the great and heavy concepts of the philosophical world.

The day I met Roy I listened as he talked with Leigh. I was amazed at their intellect but I was also amazed at their heart. That night I deleted all my clever words and all my fancy, half finished powerpoint presentations. I sat down with a scratchy pen and a few scraps of paper and wrote from the heart about why I had abandoned academia and what had brought me back. I wrote this piece with joy because I had met and been inspired by heartfelt intellectuals and this meant that it was possible to be one, it was possible to apply the intellect with a devoted heart and a clear mind. This is an extract of what I wrote which I entitled “Looking for the Heartfelt intellectual: a theoretical framework of possibility and hope.”

* * *

A question to ask would be: Why have I not chosen to do a PhD until now? Why am I doing a PhD when I’m almost 40? There are various reasons. But the most prevalent is that I abandoned academia when I found myself in an emotional and intellectual pit. I fell into this pit while engaging in post-structural thinking.

When I first heard about post-modernism it felt a bit like a religious revelation. I felt that I had found words for feelings and worries I had but could not express. My truth, based on life experience, was not the truth that I was asked to accept as real. I went to school during Apartheid. I was asked to accept and live with the contradiction of being privileged simple because of the colour of my skin. I was asked to accept that I was naturally “superior” and therefore better treated. I was part of the “chosen” race. But I was not superior enough. At school I was bullied and harassed by a bunch of boys for two years. The “truth” spread by my community was that what was happening in South Africa was right and natural and that I was protected, that the danger of violence was from the black faces I saw walking the streets and not the nice, civilized, white boys in my school. The “truth” about my family life was that I was an average middle class girl, fed and well cared for in a normal loving middle class home. The contradictions between what I was told to believe about my life and my experience of that life were extremely difficult to hold.

Post-modernist thought questions the idea of a one, verifiable, external truth. With this revelation suddenly my truth mattered. Well it mattered as much as anyone else’s truth, which was a step up from the scenario of my youth. It was still just one of many constructions, just as real and just as unreal. But I could deconstruct the powerful grand narratives that had hung over my life and see into their emptiness. They were just language; just text; just narrative; stories upon stories and I didn’t have to believe them anymore. I felt this in my work too. The powerful stories that were produced and replicated, keeping some privileged and others not, could be exposed. This became the mission – to see them; to expose them; to reveal their lack of substance. To reveal the power to be discourses – mist – illusive, insubstantial – and, so I thought, be free of them.

Following this path to its relative conclusion revealed a mirror of infinite images going further and further back without substance. The oppressive stories were insubstantial but so were stories of liberation. Whose truth mattered was a matter of positioning and perspective. This feeling of spaciousness, which at first felt light and buoyant, changed its texture. It would vacillate between feelings of liberation, of power to powerlessness and a feeling that there wasn’t anywhere for the activist in me to stand, for the environmental educator to believe in a “better future”. Wasn’t this just a construction? And who was to say my “better future” was the right one? There was a sense of victory as these new tools broke down what seemed to be solid fact and revealed the mechanisms of power grinding away behind the façade. This sense of victory turned into the slippery surface of the relative. How to act when there is no solid ground, when the words are just words representing words about words? I always remember the triumphant cry of Noel Gough: “Its just words all the way down.” I joined him in this triumph but when I followed this statement with my heart I fell and there wasn’t even a me to fall, being simply the relative construction I was making of myself.
This can be seen quite clearly in the final paper I wrote for my master’s degree. It was called “Embracing Uncertainties: The Paradox of Environmental Education within Formal Education.” I adopted the tragic position of the post-modern intellectual movement:

The tragic is a troubling recognition that the need to critique our own pre-understandings, although necessary, is no easy task. To embrace uncertainty, to doubt comforting foundations, to question efficacy of hierarchical opposites is difficult to practice, especially when certainties, foundations and opposites are enshrined in our practical discourses. To speak and act through the tragic is to recognize that all attempts at radical transformation are ambiguous in their outcomes even as, and especially as, attempts to transform are recognized as desirable and worthy. It is a way of recognizing the limits of what we, as educators can do. (Usher et al)

Using this position, I argued that environmental education was not possible within the structural confines of formal education. I argued that this was the paradox, that the formal education system was a construction of government to enforce a status quo and the very nature of the system right down to the desks in lines and the authority of a teacher made the emancipatory act of environmental education uncertain. “Formal education has for years been the guard dog of traditional values and principles and this pattern of power is not easily broken,” I said. I argued that this pattern of power was not only present in the structures of formal education, but also in the habitual ways in which teachers teach within this structure. My masters research showed that even though policy and curricula had changed and was based on the theories of constructivism, teachers still taught in the same way defaulting back to old views of knowledge, teaching and positions of authority. At the time I saw this as the power of the structure: that within the constraints of a system, it is difficult to change practice. (Now I am not so sure it is only this. The constraints also seem internal, habitual.) But where did this understanding leave me? I had revealed, through my deconstruction, the power hidden within one narrative of formal education, but even as I wrote an alternative narrative arose, and another. Which one would lead to change, which one was more “true”? The post-modern movement asks us to embrace this uncertainty. The only certainty is that all is uncertain, that there is no one truth we can lean reassuringly against and say, “Yes, this is the way to be; this is the way to act.”
So where did my paper end? Right where it started. The paradox of formal education as a platform for environmental education was exposed. But would any other structure be any better? Would it not just replace the old and become a new but similarly imposed truth? I end the paper by writing: “Although I am skeptical of formal education as a stage for environmental education, I would not advocate for this system to be replaced by another. Another system will, in time, just become the same system, unable to cope with change and new ideas.”

Was there any point in changing anything at all? Or was I just to accept that this is the game we play and the story we currently tell is as insubstantial as the next. It becomes a chess game of positioning power or just giving up all together and floating free fall on random experience. This was the irony. I embraced post-modern thought because I wished for a “radical transformation” of a society that I viewed as oppressive. What I was able to do was deconstruct what was taken as real – but then what? There was nothing substantial to replace anything with, if anything really existed at all.

Which is where I found myself in my own life. I despised people who called themselves post-modern thinkers, but didn’t live on the edge of that uncertainty: “the university above the abyss,” as Derrida wrote. But how does one live like this? It felt liberating to begin with, yes. It felt powerful. But only if the mirror was applied to others; when looking in the mirror myself it was frightening. The border of morality became so immeasurably thin that any experience was possible – “limit experience,” as Foucault called it; falling into the “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” (the title of a book by Milan Kundera) for nothing matters and everything matters. After reading Foucault’s biography I decided I didn’t want this kind of life for myself – the actions of hurt and damage that eventually led to his death. In this way of living there was no crutch to hold onto, no God, no moral life, just me, this construction of me. I couldn’t even count on that, couldn’t find the reality of my own existence. It is a lonely place to be, for even close relationships become relative. Love becomes a construction that is easily twisted and reconstructed to suit a selfish purpose, or in my case to put up with circumstances that were damaging and unloving. In the words of Leonard Cohen:
Well maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

This is the point where I gave up on the intellectual project and sank into the body, into the feelings of growing anxiety, the feelings of fear and of longing. It was in this space that I met Rob Nairn, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher. He said: “Clever concepts are clever concepts, but without compassion they are of no use. And compassion is not possible without some awareness of what is and an ability to put yourself in another’s shoes not half-heartedly but completely. He asked: Can you focus your mind? Can you be present with whatever is in the mind and happens in the mind and in the world? How easily are you distracted? Do you know where your mind goes, why you go to engage in one thought and not another? Do you have control over this mechanism of engagement?”
“Yes of course I thought.”
“Sit” he said. “Sit for 5 minutes. Sit here, now and follow your breath.”
So I did and I found I didn’t. I couldn’t. Sitting in meditation I could not even
hold my attention on my breath for more than five breaths without becoming distracted and engaged in thought, habit. And the worst was I didn’t notice the distraction until long after it had happened. There was no conscious decision to move away from the breath and think something. The thinking just happened. Before I knew it I had no sense of my body and was lost in some past event, future fantasy or an analysis of a current event. Doing this is not the problem; the problem was that I had no control over it happening. My mind was like a wild monkey following a call I didn’t even know existed, jumping from one place to the next. I was literally lost in thought. And I thought I was a free thinker! It was a shock to realize that I was not. I was a prisoner of habit, of subliminal patterns I could not even see, which were faster than my own current awareness.

So began a different journey of working with this movement. It included returning to a moral code, not because I was forced to, but because I was given back the reason for living a “good life”, that there is a “good life” to live. I saw that certain actions do have certain results and these results can be either pleasant or unpleasant in my experience of them and more importantly in how others experience them. I could examine an experience and understand how certain choices and events led to the manifestation of the experience. There were many possible explanations, yes, but the “right” one was the one that brought me closer to my humanity. It was the kind and compassionate explanation, the explanation that bridged the gap between myself and all beings. I had agency again to be a good person, to be compassionate, to love and to care for others.

I slowly began the gentle shift away from the obsession with self and the obsessive mind that is always thinking, protecting self, creating illusions upon illusions. It was a shift from thinking of the world as self-constructed to being in the world with attention. In a way it is a letting go of owning thought as mine. Thought is simply thought, no more profound that the manifestation of mind hearing, mind seeing and mind tasting. When this is experienced there is no doubt that there is the real in the moment: real but not absolute, real but not permanent. What is clear, in meditation is how intricately unknowable any of this is when one is caught in the habit of distraction. We think we know, but what we know is not what is, because where we are is not here. Which could as easily be interpreted as seeing the world through a veil. Mind in this context is not the brain or the individual thought; it is the ability to be present with everything, which is not held in an individual self or idea of an individual self or a thought of an individual self. My experience of this is very limited, but enough to know the benefits of living a good life not just for myself but for the benefit of all beings. For “I” will never be free so long as “others” suffer. It is learning that we are Interbeings and that the isolated self is no more solid than a thought, a thought intent on one thing: self-preservation.

This is where I start embarking on a new intellectual journey. Since I left this platform I can see that the intellectual space has had its own battles and wounds from the post-modern intellectual project. The post-modern project was a brave project and I salute it. It was a response to oppression and hegemony and what it achieved cannot be ignored. It taught us to look at our world differently and revealed the masks we wear, but it did not go to what lies beyond the mask. For the post-modern movement there is only the mask, one after the other to infinity.

Leigh Price introduced me to the ideas of Critical Realism during long, informal, friendly talks. She showed how she used it to explain social phenomena such as Mugabe’s justification of land restitution actions in Zimbabwe and gender violence. It was hearing how the position of critical realism gave her the skills and tools to describe, understand and explain a social phenomena that has led to suffering that drew me in. The idea that we can only relatively know in this space does not excuse us from action; in fact, our mandate is more engaged than ever: to understand the mechanisms that create our current action and view of reality through investigating what we know, what we don’t know, what is silent or absent and how this can be carefully explained. I began to see that a way of understanding the experience of reality is stratified, existing of the possibilities or mechanisms that have been generated over time to produce particular actions, events and experiences. By understanding this there is the possibility, the huge possibility of change at all levels: at the level of experience by absenting experiences that lead to suffering; at the level of events by understanding how these events manifest or could manifest and the underlying mechanisms that could potentially result in a particular action. By understanding the mechanisms that influence our experience, there is the possibility of not only changing these, but also removing them completely, for example the mechanism of racism. In Buddhism we believe, as Roy has mentioned, in Buddha Nature, the non-dual. What prevents us from Being non-dual and thus completely free from suffering are obscurations, illusions of what is real. We call being caught in this illusion, Samsara, the cycle of suffering. What traps us in Samsara is our ignorance of how things truly are. I think it is dangerous to conflate terms or belief systems without some careful intellectual work but at a first glance these beliefs seem to work within Bhaskar’s meta-theory of Critical Realism.

I must admit I’m still a little skeptical about whether an intellectual project housed within the academy can direct the change and emancipation that is needed in our current world. There seem to be many constraints within the academic context itself which inhibit radical transformation. What is like a fresh wind to me though is that from Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realist perspective I can openly state that my motivation is, that all action and thought, will one day truly be for the benefit of all beings. I am also glad that I can once again say that something is wrong, unjust and causes suffering. And what is amazing is that I can only know this through empathy – by spending three years of PhD work to carefully understand, to put myself in others and even in an emergent concept’s shoes.

In Buddhist practice we take a good hard look at ourselves and accept that we are not quite there but the possibility of getting there is paradoxically always present. It is not somewhere to go to or strive towards. It is here but sometimes veiled, obscured like a cloud drifting over the sun, the possibility of peace and happiness and empathy are always present. We have living examples of this possibility in people like the Dalai Lama, and in South Africa of Mandela and within ourselves. We have this possibility held in concepts such as Trans-disciplinarity, social learning, democracy and a thousand more… We just need to learn to see through the veil, to see what is truly there not what we think is there or what we wish to be there. Often we have great hopes for these concepts and ideas only to find when we try to live them out our own desires cloud what is truly possible and what can be achieved with what we know and the tools that we have. In Buddhist practice we often make aspiration prayers wishing for the happiness of all beings. My aspiration prayer is that this wee study will in some way help us see a little way beyond the veil and that the theoretical framework, once developed, will completely reflect this intention.


In Buddhism we talk of Bodhisattva’s, people who walk this earth and dedicate their lives to benefiting others and alleviating suffering. Bodisattva’s come in many forms. Sometimes we don’t even recognise them. After I had met Roy Bhaskar with Leigh Price I turned to her and said, ‘He is a Bodhisattva to me’ and that is what I feel now. I feel I am crying for the passing of someone who dedicated his brilliant mind to the benefit of all beings. I know that Roy, although not Buddhist, had a soft spot for Buddhist philosophy so I feel I can say ‘ Om mani peme hung Roy’. May your words and thoughts guide us as we continue the emancipatory work that you and others dedicated your lives to.

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