This is a letter from Hugh, please read when you have time :
My short answer to your question about consciousness: Listening to various visionaries and business executives talk about technology and the Internet a few weeks ago reminded me of my earlier – and very different – trip to India when I was looking at the different ways people in India and my own country view mental illness.
We can talk about cultural differences, religious differences, different approaches to science or technology but at the heart there is a fundamental difference in how people view consciousness. In fact, I think it is the fundamental difference shaping our lives and our world.
I want to be careful to avoid broadbrush caricatures: but in the so-called “West” (see my (longer) description below, if you’re so inclined) consciousness seems to be a means to an end, that is: out of consciousness we strive to derive meaning. But in my limited experience in India, contradictions crowd in and jostle side-by-side because consciousness is the end; consciousness is the experience itself. (Joseph Campbell makes an interesting distinction between this sense of (and search for) “meaning” and that of “experience.”)
A theologian here in Chicago talks about pre-Modern thinking before the intellectual rush of (and addiction to) “knowing” was dissected from the sweet savor of “being”. So many in the West seem to fear existing in the chaos that your own email address refers to – and for them it’s a state of profound fear. (And yes, “state” is an intended pun.) To have being and knowing be one-in-the-same seems not only inconceivable, but frightening.
Which leads to my second apology: I know you’re a very busy man but to further explain my own, earlier experience:
My last visit to India was part of my personal research into a program I was working on regarding the stigma of mental illness: www.openthedoors.com. The director of the program and I captured the work done in 20 countries in book form for psychiatrists: http://www.amazon.com/Reducing-Stigma-Mental-Illness-Association/dp/0521549434/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259333016&sr=8-1
But as I say, my trip to India was personal. During the course of my research, I had met a truly remarkable man from Chandigarh. His name is Dr. Narendra Wig and he has done some astonishing work in helping those with mental illness in many countries. I noticed that during the meeting with doctors from other countries he would speak to issues about the need to address spiritual concerns for some patients.
At one of the meals, I asked him about his take on the connection between mental health and spirituality. A broad smile crossed his face: “Oh, I am so glad you asked that question.” And for the next hour, he discussed issues of the human mind in ways I did not hear “Western” doctors speak of. (Even the distinction between “brain” and “mind” is so often glossed over as incidental when in fact I think it’s a critical, fundamental touchstone for understanding.)
At one point he said: “You see, in India even an atheist can be a spiritual person.” While intellectually, I understood what he meant, it wasn’t until I accepted his invitation to come to India on my own that I came to learn a bit more. I visited him in Chandigarh and he took me on a tour of the psychiatric ward of the local hospital where he is revered and his work continues to inspire others…..
…….My journey also took me south to Bangalore. I visited a mental hospital there where the director proudly gave me a tour of the three temples in the facility. Most dramatic, however, was the trip I took to a clinic in the forests of Biligiriranga Hills. There, doctors are building bridges with the traditional healers whom I was able to interview as well. While traditional healers still sat with the locals who would travel miles to discuss their problems and have their fortunes told – they understood that some among those who came to them were suffering from more chronic illnesses. (Most heartbreaking was a man who brought his mother in; she said virtually nothing during the interview. The young man though talked about how hard things were in the family, because his mother kept taking food and leaving it outside the back door for her mother who had passed away several years before. Food was dear for the entire family and he couldn’t abide the waste. (And one got the sense of a bit of shame too.) The doctor listened patiently and then asked the mother about the food. For the first time she looked up and said with such conviction and pain I can still hear: “But if I don’t feed her, she will starve.”)
As you probably know several WHO studies conducted over the last few decades have found higher rates of “recovery” from mental illness in rural communities. Theories range from greater acceptance of those who might otherwise be stigmatized in an urban environment to the nature of the work itself. (For example, where the sheer sensory overload of working a front counter in a fast food restaurant can be so much more overwhelming to someone than being able to help till a field or load produce in a rural setting.)
In my own country, the stigma of mental illness takes the form of de facto institutionalization in prisons.
Here is what astonished me: when I went to interview people in the U.S. and Europe about their mental illness, they were invariably alone. Every single person I spoke to in India was accompanied by a family member. I do NOT proclaim this as some kind of value judgment. (There are positives and negatives in both scenarios (e.g. family members who felt they could not get married because of the stigma of a “mad” brother or sister.)) What I am saying is that it speaks to how one talks of their place in the community, in the world, in the universe.
And so, almost 10 years later, when I return to India and hear people discussing the different points of view about the Internet – the speakers I hear from India are talking about a more communal experience about its possibilities for transforming how we interrelate; while those (by and large) from the West talk about “the individual experience” and monetizing that experience to as many people as possible.
In closing this altogether-too-long ramble, let me say I have not spent enough time in India to speak intelligently on this subject. Mine are emotional responses and knee jerk reactions which make me want a longer, deeper experience. Looking back – as I was reflecting on this – I realize, with a smile, that it was after returning from India the first time that I enrolled for my Master’s Degree in Theology. Once again, my own, Western response to the tug of God, the inexorable undertow of Consciousness.
Thank you for directing me to your blog. It will be good fuel for thought, good music for dancing. I hope you enjoy the book which I hope makes its way to you shortly.