It is no good being free, if others suffer: exploring agency

This post is dedicated to the late Akong Rinpoche who still teaches me and to the brave young South African women who saw the moment and acted to make sure we did not forget.

I took a month off work in July to work full time on my PhD. I spent the first two weeks frustrated and unable to find a way into the theory. Then I remembered feedback given by a fellow participant at a research school I recently attended. She wrote: “I really think if we want to be transformative, we have to look at the approach we take to transformation, because we can bring transformation, but will it be the needed transformation? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible for one to realize the value of transformative/ or transgressive/ or just learning in general if you can’t relate to it through personal experiences and beliefs. Of course we can theorize, but that only produces intellectual property, which is useless to the people that need sincere discussion and engagements.” This made me think of a time when I felt I had no agency and how I relied on my personal experiences and beliefs to get through this time. These thoughts helped me break through my block and start writing.

At the end of the month I felt that nothing that I wrote could be used for my PhD. This made me very disappointed but then I considered that this first attempt at writing may have been a very important process of starting to weave the text. What I share below is a small extract from what I wrote during July. It documents my explorations of the agency of the Self or as Bhaskar calls it, the stratified, embodied personality within the four planar Being.


A few year’s ago I got ME and for three years I was unable to work. When the illness was at it’s peak I was unable to get out of bed. I could not understand conversations and making a cup of coffee was a task that took enormous effort. I lived off my savings and ended up broke living in a friend’s house and barely being able to afford the basics. The one thing about not being able to work, socialise or even have a longish conversation with a friend is that the identity of ‘me’ erodes. There was no ‘work Jane’, ‘no socially connected Jane’ and not even a Jane that could make her own food effectively or drive a car to go the shops to buy the food. What this means is that I lost, what I considered, my agentive power in the world.

The one thing that kept me going through this time was a Buddhist meditation practice called Ngondro. Ngondro is called a preliminary practice. My Buddhist teacher, Rob Nairn, called it a B.A for Buddhists. It consists of five steps. I have only done the first two. The first practice is a practice of contemplation. These contemplations are called ‘thoughts that turn the mind’. For many days I sat and meditated on precious human existence, impermanence, karma and suffering. These thoughts may seem morbid but they are very liberating and agentive. I find these contemplations a useful way in to contemplating what it means to have agency in the world in relation to Bhaskar’s resolution of the dualism between structure and agency: the four planar being (Bhaskar, Dannermark, & Price, in press) and particularly the agency of the embodied personality being ‘I’, the agent that acts.

“First meditate on this precious human body
So hard to attain, so easy to lose
I shall make this life meaningful”

When contemplating precious human existence I turned away from thinking about my pain and suffering to thinking of the context I have been born into and all the privileges that it brought me. I also thought how others do not have this context of privilege, that the day we are born is not a neutral day but a day where we are born into a history of anothers making and from that day forward we have choices of what we do with that history. Bhaskar would consider this moment of entering into the stream of life as a moment to that explains the relationship between structure and agency (Bhaskar, Dannermark, Price, in press). The individual, this I that I am, and what I can do with this ‘I that I am’ is born into a structure. Therefore structure always comes first. This does not mean that we don’t have maneuvering power within this historical space. The choice is whether we reproduce history, context and structure or transform it. Within this contemplation of precious human existence I included a contemplation on what I had done with my choice and what I would like to do if I recovered.

Words that have histories
jane caroline

words that have histories.
words that are soaked in disappointment,
that have scars.
words that when spoken do not come out smooth and clipped
stumble as the tongue collides with the palate
words that could glow and open the chest
words followed by other words
from the left and right hand side of the brain
conceptual towers and bridges and gates and
locks and bars
sentences in mazes
long passageways

Words that have histories
Words that hold theories to hide pain
whispered under the breath
heavy with thought
past images and objects
Clear cut dry concepts
Sharp enough to wound

Words that have histories
Can they be spoken anew?
Can they be light and fresh?
Saying, hearing, soft and tender
Words whispered
Into that cavernous space

Second, the world and living beings are impermanent
Our lives in particular are like water bubbles –
Who knows when we will die and become corpses?
Since Dharma will help the, I practice diligently.

The second ‘thought that turns the mind’ is impermanence. In the belly of my illness noting that each thought, each moment fades to be replaced by something else was both terrifying and liberating. We die, we rot and our flesh is eaten by other Beings and so life goes on. At the edge of this knowledge lies a Self that does not need a ‘work Jane’, or a ‘car driving Jane’ or even a ‘Jane that has friends’. The Jane here is slightly intangible but nonetheless an existence. Bhaskar calls on us to understand our agency as being more than our personal actions in the material world but as the actions that we take within ourselves and the actions we take with others (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). When the ego is not so tight and when the needs of ‘me’ are as intangible as the wind what is there but the sound of breath coming in and out and so the sound of all breathing.

jane caroline

The vivid one of mishka dog pressed against my leg 3 days before she died
And the dead pale hue to Bulelwa’s skin as I kissed her goodbye
And the brilliant light of dancing or that song
The memory of that song that was sung as I hung out the door
And the brazen hot jazz and the cobbled streets
And the pot holed streets and the bridges
And the churches
And the building where Marie Antoinette learned she was to die
And the statues to wars
And the statues to pride
And the glass stained windows of light
And the laughing people by the roadside.
And the men who mark me out as I walk
And the smell of coconut and fresh fish on the sweating night air
And the fear of leaving
And the fear of staying
And the delirium of fever
And the fire pain in my head
And the chants of the monks as an eagle flies into the sun
And the screams in the street
And the memories of silence
And the stark white snowed mountains
And trees that have memories that arch upwards and dig down
And each tear that is chosen as each thought that is not
And each moment breathing

Third, there is no freedom at the time of death.
In order to take control over karma,
I give up misdeeds and always do virtuous acts
Thinking thus, I examine myself every day.

The third thought that turns the mind is Karma. This is little understood and the Buddhist teachings go that if one was to understand Karma then this would be enlightenment but they say that about all the thoughts that turn the mind. Karma means action. I don’t understand the intricacies of the Buddhist philosophy of Karma. What I understand is that we have a force of action in the world and that there is a choice each moment as to how we use this action. Action for Buddhists doesn’t start in the world, it starts in our internal being. If there is right action within us then there will be right action in the world. This makes me think of Bhaskar’s quest for an ethical philosophy where he argues that a correct way of seeing the world will lead to the correct way of acting in the world (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). For Bhaskar this ‘correct way’ is by challenging the ‘epistemological doctrines’ that are in the world today and that inhibit radical change. For Bhaskar this happens in two ways: firstly, that epistemology and ontology are conflated and secondly that Western philosophy’s ontological position is incorrect because of the first mistake. In the second movement of critical realism, dialectic critical realism, Bhaskar names another mistake in Western Philosophy, that reality can only be spoken about in terms of positive qualities and that negative qualities (gaps and absences) are not spoken of. For Bhaskar this means that there is no possibility for real change as if reality only exists of positive qualities then change means a distribution of these qualities and not an absenting of these qualities or the filling of gaps.

As Buddhists contemplate Karma we often think of the things that inhibit us from being a kind and compassionate person. What are the habits in the mind that obscure the Self that is naturally at one with the world. The way we go about working with these habits is by absenting them and we do this by removing what is not who we are or what we don’t want to be. In Buddhist practice the aim is not to add to your personality or to add thoughts or new habits to your mind. The aim is to negate, take away and destroy that which is not Self. This philosophy accepts that Self is completely fine just the way it is. There is nothing that needs to be added to it. What needs to happen is for things to be taken away. Things that have no place and bring no happiness. This ability to remove is where agency begins. This ability to identify with what you are not, or when a structure or a relationship is not okay is the first moment of transformation. Bhaskar talks to this when he speaks of education. The point is not to add, the point is to engage with what is already present and remove that which blocks an individual or a group from engaging in learning(Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015).

After the first iteration of the Changing Practice course I was reflecting on what it meant to be an educator. One of the mentor’s had made me angry by saying that some of the course participants do not have enough education to engage in critical thinking. I disagreed and argued that critical thinking did not depend on how many degrees you have. Later that day I was having tea with my good friend Robert Berold and he said ‘it is not what we add, it is how we, as educators, assist our participants in taking away the obstacles to learning.’ This lead to this core statement which expresses the ethos of the Changing practice course.
“A lack of critical thinking is not a sign of a lack of education, rather it is a sign of mis-education. The course does not attempt to teach people how to be critical but to remove what inhibits their natural ability to question their world.”(Burt et al., 2014)

Karma and action do not, however, stop in the mind but extend into the world, into the spaces between ourselves and others, into the institutions and organisations and cultures through which we move and in relation to our material world.

For Ilyo, soon to be born
jane caroline

in her womb
you lie
mostly silent
an imminent tingle

when I saw your mothers belly
in the parking lot of the BP garage
wrapped up in that black and white dress
she wears so well
I wanted to kneel down to you
and tell you of the human world
you will be entering

sometimes it feels like the slime here
cannot be cleared
each day a a cut-up sliced half life
a harsh stuttering hicc-ed up
shadow of inner-murk
in some places thin & taunting
in others thick enough to choke

the shape of animal forms
run beneath the surface
a challenge of limbed chase
and victory
raw taste & sounds
breath dominates
hot & wet
life & death are sharp edged lovers
in fired wanton freedom

for a brief moment
raindrops are whole & immaculate
trees have unique shapes & voices
and hold the form of joy

I’m not sure I’m qualified to welcome you
I have to admit that I am almost depleted
from a life of human interactions
from my own internal action
but I sense the awareness
of atomized space in me
ancient beyond time
of which you are still
almost suspended

my rattled vehicle
crest hills this dirt road
and I’m eyeing an image
stretched mountains holding
slate-grey shards of water
a blue cloud scuttled sky
one instant a loerie
all green and red and blue
glistens it’s flight path
in front of me

this the the colour of life
the sculpture of this ancient
crushed & human tortured landscape
covered scars in careful green & rust and bruised blue
an earth-wound
hard & beautiful

what I am trying to say is I am told
we are impermanent forms of eternal presence
if you find the way to Being in this life
you will birth your own freedom.

Fourth, the places, friends, pleasures and riches of samsara
Are always stricken with the three sufferings;
They’re like a feast before being led to the execution
Cutting the ties of attachment, I strive and reach enlightenment

The final thought that turns the mind is on suffering. There is an assumption that Buddhist practitioners have a very negative view of the world because we contemplate suffering. This is not so. The contemplation is about understanding the deep causes of suffering so that we can remove them and be happy. The start is to understand what causes suffering in the Self. As one of the great teachers, Minjyor Dorje writes, “Most definitely everyone experiences suffering, dissatisfaction, and anguish. But actually people do not investigate the underlying causes of these feelings or what perpetuates them, and most importantly, they do not investigate how to bring them to an end. People spend a lot of effort trying to avoid unhappiness – not facing it, not transforming it, but only trying to make it go away.”. This often makes me think of human beings approach to climate change. We have all the knowledge we need to know why the world, and thus people suffer and yet we don’t want to face it, we don’t want to transform it, we just want to make it go away. Naomi Klein gave a talk this year as part of the Edward Said series, she commented that people, especially people in the West think that technology is going to solve the problem of global warming. Scientists are even investigating the possibility of dimming the sun by creating the effect of a volcanic eruption so as to block on the light. What people don’t consider is these actions, although they may solve the problem, don’t necessarily solve the problem for all people. In fact for some countries the dimming of the sun will create more problems. For each solution, Klein argues, there are the unseen that then suffer. This means that we are not facing the cause of our suffering completely, we are just wanting the problem of climate change to go away. As Klein argues so articulately, the problem of global climate change is linked to a problem with our social and economic systems that are based on racial discrimination and patriarchy. Until we address these systems as causes of our suffering then we have not transformed our suffering we have simply turned away from the causes of our suffering. Some of us don’t want to change because the current system of inequality benefits us (Klein, 2016). If it is not climate change it would be something else because the fundamental values of our society have not shifted and those that benefit are happy to sacrifice both places and people for this benefit without realising that in the end, we all suffer.

As Freire clearly stated: It is not just the oppressed that suffer, the oppressor also suffers at the hand of his own oppression (Dardar, 2014).

Like Bhaskar, Buddhists believe that the human being is fundamentally completely fine and that we are all naturally compassionate. What stops this natural compassion is a delusion or, as Freire would call it, a false consciousness, of the way the world truly is. Bhaskar would link this delusion to a false ontology such as believing that the world can be reduced to constant conjunctions or simply a projection of the minds discourse. Freire would see this delusion as hiding from the truth of oppression, in the case of the oppressed this would be a false consciousness of seeing oppression as a natural order and as being the will of God or as simply the way of the world. For the oppressor the delusion is believing that the world and all the people in it are simply a projection of the middle-class way of life and value system. This is the right way and all other ways are just not there yet. Both of these positions are delusional and only once we learn to read the world and know it for what it is, in other words see the truth of why we suffer and make other people suffer, can we all be free(Czank, 2012). This is why facing up to priviledge or discrimination, although hard, is also freeing as it frees us from our false understandings of the world and allows us to engage in the world as it really is.

Now as educators and researchers do we not see these forms of suffering everywhere in the way humanity holds onto old structures and in the way humanity perpetuates a status quo that is unjust? As educators do we ask our learners to either learn how to continually turn away from suffering or do we learn together how to face it and thus transform it? Since I have been doing research the focus on contextual work has grown and grown. This shift has been greatly encouraging as it says that in the world of research there is a wish to know the world as it is. With different research tools and processes researchers set out to read the world as best they can and so face up to what causes our collective suffering.

In the footsteps of Olive Schreiner
jane caroline

She did not walk alone in the veld
The footsteps of the dead tracked her
The actions of the brave living drove her
The gentle wind of compassion
Purified her dark and coarse lesions

She was not alone in knowing
The agony of uncompromising life
Of knowing the dry places
Festering with poisonous insects
And maggot-ridden corpses

Out of which arises
A single rock koppie
Reaching into a stark blue sky

I want to tell one more story from my life as a Buddhist practitioner before I move into the narratives of the intellectuals who are read and spoken about within the walls of the Universities that I learn with.

When I had recovered from ME enough to begin working again. I was confused. The three years of serious Buddhist practice made me think that my time in the world of action was over and that I should give up that life and simply learn to be with my own confused mind and help people to be with their own minds. I had been offered a job at an NGO far away from where I lived but I was slightly afraid to go back into the world of action where I was never quite sure whether my actions were beneficial or harmful. I wrote to my root Guru and asked him what he thought I should do. This may seem strange to people who are not part of the Buddhist education system. I have had many friends say, how can you give up your agency to another human. This is not what a relationship with a Guru is about. Akong Rinpoche was a man of immense compassion and insight. He knew my struggles and he knew my potential. I trusted him and it was this trust that lead me to ask his opinion. For me, to be able to trust in one single human being in the world is a powerful force of agency.

I truly believed when I sent the letter that the reply would be to do retreat, teach mindfulness, withdraw from the world and yet what he wrote back to me was exactly the opposite. He argued that, for me,  working towards the care of water was by far more beneficial than retreating. ‘Your life will be living the Buddhist principles’, he argued, ‘water will overcome thirst and hunger in other beings.‘.. that is your Dharma.’ What this taught me is that an ethical path cannot be separated from the world. Maybe at some point in humanity’s history there was a space in the world to withdraw quietly into contemplation but it is not this time. To be true to my path as an earthwalker it is time to continue walking, to endure what that means and live the Dharma that this time asks me to live.

I have started writing about agency, which is the core exploration of this study, by engaging with a body of knowledge and practice that is core to my being and that is not often spoken of in lecture halls to demonstrate a few things.

To honour the call of a fellow participant who recently attended a research school with me that to know transformative practice we need to be able to relate and narrate our own transformation.

That transformative praxis or transformative agency is more than our actions in the material world and it is more than working with our internal mind states. As Bhaskar argues we cannot ignore the intransitive dimension and ‘collapse the human being to human action and collapse the different aspects of the material world to the level of events’ (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 40). There is more at play here.

It is a desire to address, what Klein calls, ‘a failure of narrative’. She argues that the narratives we have told ourselves for decades such as the narrative of growth have failed us and we have nothing with which to replace them. I would agree and also argue that we do. Within each of us is a rich array of narratives which tell a different story to the displaced and violent tale of modern capitalism. Whether the spaces are open for us to tell these tales in many different spaces and so create moments of possibility remain to be seen but it is one of the intentions and desires of the educational work that I have been involved in. Part of the role of the 21st century educator is to create the spaces for fully embodied, knowing people who can bring all their life experiences to the path of learning and change.

Finally, it is an attempt to demonstrate that the meaning and knowledge that drives our actions is a rich weaving of knowledges, experiences, structure and intent. As Bhaskar so clearly describes it “if we look at agency itself this is a most marvellous thing. It depends on a process of intentional causality and agency occurs typically when we intend to do something for a reason. What we have when we are trying to understand social life in the first moment of stratification is to see action in terms of reasons. And then the second moment of stratification is to see how structures and structural change give agents reasons for doing things. That is a typical stratification of action moment.” (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 38)

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