I was sitting in the balcony, having my morning coffee while I looked out at the sea; it’s what I do almost every morning, yet it is special, because the sea, birds, trees, and me are a new configuration each day.
As I settled on my seat, a crow came and perched on the ledge. Recently, it had been coming every morning and had become an expected visitor. I had this urge to shoo it away. The cawing sound is a little loud for my auditory nerves, and in anticipation I preferred it gone. But I let it be. And it did not caw.
What is it about us humans that we do not like occupying space with another whose form, sound, or views we dislike? Others in the animal kingdom share this response. I was reading about elephants and their complex social structures—families, bond groups, clans. Some of their decisions are based on elephant culture and resource availability, and some on individual likes and dislikes: they take sides, they display loyalty, and they seek social inclusion. What they don’t do, or cannot do, is create tools of mass destruction and they can’t use propaganda to deceive, because their reality is still closely linked to the ecological world.
The experience with the crow and its cawing helped me understand the growing intolerance in the world. It struck me then that we develop intolerance in these seemingly innocuous ways, such as waving at the crow and saying go-away, even when the crow is perched unimposingly on a ledge. While elephants may not be able to reflect on how their behaviour is shaped, we humans can, yet we overlook the little reactions that lead to big trouble.
This explanation may seem a little excessive, except that it is not. It’s a simple experience of intolerance and therefore overlooked. The manifestations of such experiences are so disturbing on the world stage that we are usually overwhelmed. Let’s take the example of what is happening in Myanmar at present, the military is shooting and killing indiscriminately, people are dying and its distressing for almost all of us. What has been happening in Palestine is as troublesome, migrants from Africa being left to die at sea is heartbreaking, the genocide at Rwanda, the Gulags and Auschwitz, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were no better—the list is endless. Such events seem to come in waves that submerge us, leaving us with no adequate response, merely an emotional one.
When events coincide with emotions, we react, we do it repeatedly till we develop a certain orientation. Our orientation can be liberal or conservative, rebellious, timid, or apathetic, or it can be deluded, righteous, or naïve, influenced by our surroundings, and our upbringing and exposure.
Events and emotions feed each other in a continuous cycle till our orientation becomes an ideology. And what do we become? We become like dogs that keep chasing the tail: in futile pursuit of an illusion.
Is there an alternative that will allow us to see the ineffectiveness of our ‘dog chase tail game?’ Is it preposterous to think that we—you and I—people with no real influence on the world stage can alter the course of humanity? To the contrary, it would seem. But how?
By tolerating the presence of the crow.
Perhaps if we begin here, we will not have to reckon with world leaders who cross all lines of injustice and deception, because from amongst us rise these very forces, be they supremacist, totalitarian, or militant.
If 7.7 billion of us tolerated the other, would it not change the course of humanity as we know it today? Even if only half that number or about 3.85 billion actually succeeded it would keep the scale from tilting.
I, a liberal thinker, only recently realised the narrowness of my broadminded views when I understood how critical I can be of others’ views. As someone with a more inclusive mindset should I not be allowing other views to hold space? I don’t have to imbibe these views if they feel insufficient and I need not engage by being critical. As an independent yet interconnected entity, I can simply let them be.
A point-of-view does not breach the lines of respect and tolerance, our reactions do. Our reaction to the criticism and rejection that we receive because of our views leads us to coalesce into groups that eventually lead us to war with each other—civil, cold, or nuclear is irrelevant.
About a week back, I read a book titled, ‘Emissary of Insight’. It’s a short biography of S.N. Goenka, the teacher of Vipassana Meditation. In April 2019, The New York Times featured him in their series Overlooked No More. Goenka or Goenkaji (-ji- is a suffix used in India to convey respect) carried forward the practical and ancient method of Vipassana Meditation from the time of the most recent Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama to the inhabitants of the tech age, relaying it beyond cultures and borders to both the scientific and the religious minded.
The author, Daniel Stuart, an academic, has tried to offer a critical and impersonal view on the life and choices of S.N. Goenka, who happens to be his meditation teacher, as well as mine. In reading the book I felt that it was too narrow in interpretation and simplistic in its explanation of complex events that may have led to some of the choices made by the Vipassana teacher. So, there’s Stuart’s view of S.N. Goenka’s decisions and approach that does not fully match my view, and neither is a complete or true representation, because Goenka(ji) is not here to explain the reason behind his choices.
Can I therefore be satisfied with the book, as a well-written biography that offers a different perspective? A mentor suggested that I give space and room to the author to express his views. The minute I did this, all criticism dropped. I felt enriched as a reader who could use their own discernment to understand what I had received from the book, or explore the topic to develop a more complete perspective, or simply put aside the book like others once read.
A view is a perspective (merely one way of looking at something), sound is a vibration, and form is light reflected; That’s all. What then is there to dislike or criticise?