The Blindness of Our Times: Can Fahm Help Us to See?

Two phrases struck me when reading the invitational note: “the life-shaping power of language” and “words that use us vs. words that we use”. These phrases, along with my experiences over the last several years, and my particular feelings over the last couple months, lay the foundation for what I write below. I cannot say I have a clear understanding of fahm but I write from what I understand and look forward to greater elaboration and conversation during the gathering in Iran.

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Ostensibly, Gandhi was talking about the futility of revenge when he made this statement. But maybe there is something deeper there. Maybe it’s also about comparison — that we are all the same, that we all should want for the same things. And because of this continuous one-upmanship, trying to match an eye for an eye, we are losing sight of what really matters.

I feel we are living today in times of blindness or, perhaps, we are living in times of alternating blindness and sight.

I live in one world, in Udaipur, a small city in the northwest part of that country called India. It is changing so rapidly; it’s changed more in the last 20 years than it has in the 500 before when it was established. It’s gone from being small, contained, with minimal damage committed upon the natural landscape, self-sustainable in its use of water and its disposal of waste. Today, it’s expanding — seemingly by the minute — with construction currently underway to build an international airport, a massive shopping mall, additional highways and flyovers, not to mention apartment complexes and new housing colonies. (Interesting how the word ‘colony’ is used in the city context to describe neighborhoods — perhaps because they are colonies of what was once farmland or forest.) It’s rapidly turning into a city – like every other – that has lost sight of its purpose, its roots, its balance, its limits.

I also have the fortune/misfortune of being able to walk into and out of other worlds, like to various communities in the United States and Lebanon. I see examples of sightedness and blindness everywhere I go. People who believe in their strength, see their skills and capacities, and act from confidence. People who are blind to the gifts they have and ‘play small’, hiding behind institutions and begging for help. People who recognize the devastation being wrought on human communities and on the natural world, but who can’t seem to connect their own actions, much less the actions of dominant institutions, to this devastation. People who are blinded by the glitter and gold of modern gadgets, celebrity games and the next shopping extravaganza, so that they’ve lost touch with the realities of our times. People whose sensitivity is so intact that they find themselves brought to tears and rage on a daily basis by the catastrophes happening in their (our) world.

Why is it that some of us see, and some of us don’t? Or is it that we all see, and some simply choose to put on sleep-masks or blinders? Or is it that we are made blind by the institutions and environments we grow in? Especially in urban spaces, especially through schools, especially with televisions, especially when everything and everyone is measured by money or material standards?

Thankfully, I have met many people in the world, who are facing head-on, heart-on, eyes wide open, what is happening – to their ecology, to their culture, to their language, to their families, to their selves… They cannot ignore the violence or exploitation; they cannot shut their eyes to the tragedy unfolding before them. The situation is clear; it cannot be rendered invisible.

Yet the roots behind that situation can be made invisible. After all, roots are in the ground, so one has to work to dig them up. It is much easier to look at the surface and see the damage, rather than to look below and see the cause/foundation of that damage.

Also, it’s difficult to see the linkages. Maybe we notice that something is going wrong, but we can’t see how it connects to another thing that’s going wrong, or (even harder) how it connects to something that supposedly is going right.

It’s becoming more obvious to me that what we see is almost a direct result of our language and our perceptual world.

A simple example is with nature. If the word ‘resources’ is used to refer to nature (as in ‘natural resources’), then we think of trees, birds, fish, animals, etc., as some ‘things’ to be used by us. What cannot be used must be discarded or destroyed (without guilt) and what can be used must be exploited. The same relationship applies to ‘human resources’. Which is why the majority of children are discarded by the schooling system and the majority of adults are destroyed by the industrial wage economy.

But if we think of nature as our relatives or as life-force, then our relationship completely changes. Similarly, if we think of humans and all non-human beings as manifestations of the divine, then we necessarily must have a different relationship with them: one of respect, of connection, of understanding.

Are there ways that our language — and therefore our cultures, our environments, our relationships — can bolster our sense of sight? For this to happen, what do we need to escape (or walk out of)? What do we need to create (or walk on to)?

In trying to understand my own sight (and blindness), and that of my friends, peers and other passionate people I know, I have noticed a few things. You might call them the kinds of fahm (language/ perception/ culture/ relationship) that makes it possible for us to see.

For example, it has been incredibly important for me to accept (my) emotions and intuition as valuable guides for understanding what is happening in the world. This is in contrast to my schooling, which always emphasized the rational mind, logic and intellect as supreme. If anything needed to be understood, it had to come through argument, pros and cons, analysis. So, allowing myself to feel — in all its glory and its grounding — as the starting point and ending point for understanding comes as a radical shift. Some of this feeling can be expressed outwardly; some of it (the more intuitive) only comes within.

Another element has been a strong connection to my body. Bicycling, yoga, dancing, shram (dignified manual labor), farming, building, all of this real physical work, has been vital for sensing what matters. This has helped me to see and respect, and love, the distinctly animal element of ourselves. It has also made me more vigilant towards the disrespect given to work, and therefore to the body, which makes it possible for exploitation to happen in the way it does.

Being in nature, with wild things, is another relationship I can speak to. Putting my hands in the earth, touching the soil and its abundant life, watching plants as they grow, noticing the insects, the small creatures, all of this reminds me of the interconnectedness we share. It makes me humble and shows me my own power, to either let things be or to destroy them. In seeing the little things, I cannot remain blind to them, much less to the bigger ones. I am also reminded continuously that it is important to have the wild, to not try to tame and control everything.

Doing what I love, having every day be an expression of my joy and passions, my questions and concerns, also brings me sightedness. Maybe more than anything else, this ensures my sensitivity, keeps me balanced and able to care and give and receive. Because I am not fighting my time, not struggling to get through another day. Rather, I am living a life. Music and dance and other forms of creative expression play a huge role. And from that joy, I have reverence and appreciation. Being happy with my life thus makes it possible for me to see beyond myself.

A final key is cross-age/cross-generation/cross-all-kinds-of-boundaries friendships and relationships. My life’s work, in many ways, is about nurturing spaces for making connections. Ever-widening circles of love are what I experience because of this. Not that it is easy, because again, I have been taught to label, to put people in boxes, to construct ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. But I have found that once on this track of opening up and crossing boundaries, then it becomes impossible to be blind any more. Since every where I look, there are relationships, there are people who I know, who matter, because I care about them. And I see our struggles as intimately intertwined.

Of course, all that I have written above presumes two things. First, that blindness can be overcome through various kinds of experiences, feelings, relationships and dialogues. Second, that once overcome, sightedness will lead to actions that make a difference in how we live and act and move through our world. These are two very HUGE assumptions, but in a way, I feel I have to believe in them. Otherwise, I’m not sure what I can do in response to the crises of our times…

I was talking with a friend here in Shikshantar the other day, discussing the depth of the mess we are in and how desperate the situation has become. I came to the idea that whatever work we do these days, ultimately, to me, seems to be about these four things:

1) To prepare, on a personal level, for the crash that is going to happen by becoming stronger in body, mind and spirit. This includes learning new arts like growing food, identifying herbal plants, being able to build simple shelters with one’s own hands and simple (non-electric) tools, as well as being more comfortable and adept at living simply.

2) To encourage those who haven’t gotten too embedded in the System to stay where they are (that is, out of it). This means curtailing or stopping all efforts which seek to ‘mainstream’, i.e., to bring more and more people into the fold of urban, educated civilization (i.e., exploitative, alienated, violent).

3) To invite those who are embedded in the System to find ways out. This is, in a way, the primary work of Shikshantar. We try to use as many different and dynamic means we can to unearth the lies we have learned and to create more balanced, harmonious and just ways of living and learning. And we do this in the city, among the urban, educated. Our means have included (in no particular order): city farming, herbal medicine making, healthy cooking, filmmaking, publication-making, dancing, singing, theatrics, juggling, hosting festivals and community dialogues, upcycling and zero waste living, composting, laughing, meditating, appreciative inquiry, open space, etc...

4) To find and make friends, companions and partners, lovers and dreamers, with whom we can collectively keep from going crazy. Pulling our hair out, running away and screaming to escape the madness will do no one any good! ?

My prayer is that our time together in Iran will be a time for all of these things and more.