21 Be Your Own Philosopher

Peter Gould














It seems to me that philosophy didn’t always exist in the collective Western mind. There must have been a time—

Oh dear, I seem to be falling back—it seems to me that a collective human mind didn’t always exis——

whoooa: free fall: it seems to me that consciousness didn’t always———

whew, catch my breath; there must have been a time, probably when a select greater hominid band somewhere in Africa gathered together, when the females of the group needed to explain something in their collective consciousness to the men, who were clueless.

So a couple of alpha females got together to assign something more dependable than a signifying grunt to a metaphoric association everyone in their group would have known about and agreed on for centuries—if they had known how to verbally agree: the idea that there was a metaphoric association between their bodies and the moon.

As a bonus, if this band happened to live near the ocean, they might even have intuited a third association: bodies, moon, tides. So one of these females said, “You know what we need? We need language. That will be how we explain to men what is going on with us.”

Well, they didn’t actually say it, but they would have if they could have.

Very slowly over millennia, as consciousness found space to root in the expanding human brain, and verbal constructions were built there—metaphor was the heavy equipment, the big dig, used to open those spaces—we found a way to transmit acquired knowledge from one generation to the next generation in the form of language, not that most other animal species hadn’t already learned their own non-linguistic mechanisms for transmission: I mean, how do young white-tailed deer learn not to eat that little poisonous leaf? How do little loon babies know they should climb on mama’s back for a boat ride? How do monarch butterflies know where they’re flying to?

So, language served functions similar to more sophisticated means of communication in other species. But eventually language realized it could do other things. It’s like when you discover that the screwdriver in your kitchen drawer can also be used to open up a beer bottle.

I wasn’t there (and my theory isn’t even original, you know?*).

* See Judy Grahn, Blood, Bread, and Roses. Grahn is a chief theorist behind Metaformic Theory, a theory that traces the roots of culture back to ancient menstrual rites. Although some believe that Grahn is a separatist due to her involvement in lesbian feminism, she states that her Metaformic philosophy is inclusive.


I wasn’t there, but I can picture that a primitive form of philosophical inquiry must have begun only a little while after humanity’s dawning consciousness, probably in some mother’s rare moment of leisure, of contemplation of regular observed systems like stars moving in the heavens, flooding and ebbing tides, seasons, seeds and flowers and fruit ripening, moon phases, migrations, meteor showers, eclipses, menstruation…

Oh, okay, I guess men started–slowly, I’m sure–to see language acquisition as a good thing, when they wanted to talk about hunting and stuff. Guy things. None of this was written down. This was many many millennia before anything was written down!

But as consciousness increased, so the need for answering the question “what is it all about?” must have increased, too.

Why am I taking you down this avenue? Because a daily practice of meditation can return you to that prehistoric instant. It can happen just a few moments into your silence, if and when the running commentary in your head stalls out for a moment. It is something else, something very important, that you can do with your mindful time.

You probably know that the main streams of philosophy in the West have been questions like: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where did we come from? What is existence? What is real? Who is God? What is death? How do we know stuff?

{ Apparently, almost all books of philosophy over the last two thousand years have been written by men. Men seem to own all the philosophy publishing houses and printing presses, too, for like, the Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, Texts of the Buddha, and secular schools, too—so that, if gender exists at all within consciousness—that is, at a level other than the body—the various points of view of other genders have been given almost no attention in the universal conversation, especially when philosophy met the printing press. }

That, too, was a kind of philosophical aside, that last paragraph, because it’s likely that deep within your own consciousness, gender differentiation doesn’t exist. Just like other more superficial identity categories tend to peel away, too.

Like my constant mantra: who am I, Peter, without my stutter, my cisgender maleness, my family’s history, my bandana, my blue and white Yemaya necklace, my whitening hair, my skin, my bones…?)

So, deep in your meditative session, once you have taken care of your to-do list; once you have decided what to say to your roommate about that big new stain on the rug, and figured out what medical school to apply to, and realized what you SHOULD HAVE SAID to that creep, you may find, as your breathing slows, that you have time, indeed you have the need, to confront more existential questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I fit in? Can there ever be peace on the planet? What does God or the Goddess have in mind for ME?

In our IP/OP class, if we ever cross that little stone footbridge from mindfulness to philosophy,  I would hope that two customary areas of philosophic thoughtfulness would grab us: (because that’s what kind of class we are!)

1) the idea of Quality, and

2) the nature of compassion.

Both of these fit under the Inner Peace Outer Peace banner!

I believe that it wouldn’t be an empty, fruitless inquiry. No. You can do it on your own, like the title of this essay says. You can go deep enough to figure out and state clearly your relationship to these two concepts: Quality with a capital Q, and compassion, oh okay, let’s capitalize that one, too. Compassion.

So—back to the start of this essay—you may end up NOT solving the big questions of life. Sorry. But you can solve some big questions in your own life, and that is a good place to start!

I could go on and on about Quality. But it is also a nice concept to just leave hanging. I’ll let you seek your own personal definition of it, so you’ll recognize it every time. You can watch it hanging in front of you, slowly turning around like a bauble on a string, and revealing different facets as it turns in the light. QUALITY! Do you know how to actively seek Quality in your work? In your relationships? In how you spend your days? In the food or drink or smoke or medicine you take in to your body and your mind? Did you know that there is a whole branch of modern philosophy dedicated to Quality? Will you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

And Compassion, too. You can apply it in so many areas of meeting other people. To me it’s not singular. It radiates. And like love, it’s almost impossible to exhaust your supply of it. You don’t use it up when you spend it. On the contrary, like that wonderful teenage Italian girl Juliet said,

       My bounty is as boundless as the sea /    my love as deep; the more I give to thee /    the more I have, for both are infinite.

I’ll close by saying that a useful inquiry into Compassion, if you have the time, might be to ask yourself how you can use your supply, if it refreshes as easily as it seems. How applying a liberal dose of Compassion to any situation that you’re in—especially conflicted ones—changes the dynamic, even alters how you think! Even if you feel grudging about it, even if part of you struggles against it.

It works!

I know, because it happened to me earlier today.



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The Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader Copyright © by Peter Gould & John Ungerleider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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