The capacity to think, reason, and decide for oneself is the greatest freedom an individual possesses. There is no individual liberty without intellectual liberty. While this freedom is each one’s birthright, it is earned and not simply bestowed.
When we fail to make the faculties a priority in life, we live a life of limitation and arrested development. Unfortunately, complacency normalizes this state of unrealized potential. The effects of a poorly-developed intellect, and the grandeur of intellectual maturity are beyond the scope of this blog, but are well-highlighted by contemporary Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy in his book The Fall of the Human Intellect.
We cannot rely on any outside agency, including schools and other educational institutions, to promote independent thought. Outside influences at best can provide us with material for thinking, but cannot develop our capacity to think. The exposure to different types of information, including scientific knowledge, technical know-how, creative techniques, cultural differences, and so forth serve only to give us a store-house of memories. These branches of information do little to develop maturity of personality or enhance the complexion of life. If we are serious about maturing into greater intellectual freedom, we must create for ourselves the space to think.
The Practice: Reflection
In understanding how to develop our thinking, consider the intellect as the ‘thinking-muscle.’ Like any muscle, it is developed by regular use. The practice of strengthening the intellect is daily reflection, questioning. (This practice is complemented by , which makes the existing intellect available in daily life.) There are a number of aspects to consider in daily reflection, including: setting, time, reflection material, and the practice itself.
Setting & Time
The environment around you is the first essential factor to consider. Where will you actually study? The principle to adhere to here is non-disturbance of your attention by environmental factors. Reflection requires the internal space to think, so it is important to create a physical space that is conducive for this. Find an area that is clean and uncluttered, with no extraneous material within eyes’ or arm’s reach to distract you from your focus on the study. Pending bills, newspapers and magazines, mobile phones, etc should all be cleared away so that the setting reminds you of one thing alone: you and your own thoughts.
Next decide upon the seating arrangement. Will you be seated on a mat or cushion on the floor, or on a chair? Against the wall or facing it? If you are on a chair, do you need a foot-rest to make the legs most comfortable? Again, the principle is one of non-disturbance from any factor, including the physical body.
The time of the day most conducive for independent reflection is the early hours of the morning, from 4:00-6:00am. This is the time of the day that naturally finds the mind at its most calm, the intellect at its most alert. Further, the obligations and activities of the day to come have not begun to make their presence felt. In the early hours there is nothing else that needs to be done, so we can engage in our study free from any other thought. Studying early sets the tone for the entire day. Bathing the intellect and mind in the principles of life and living elevates the entire personality, giving a psychological boost to the day.
For anyone who has the ability to rise and study at this early time-slot, it is highly recommended and highly beneficial. However, this is not going to be a practical wake-up time for most people who have long and busy days. Therefore it is recommended to rise around 60 minutes earlier than your usual wake-up time, and use this extra time for study. As you become accustomed to the earlier start to the day, you can gradually shift it earlier.
To facilitate the study, make sure that you know in advance what you are going to study, and place everything in readiness before retiring for the day. Set the study area so that you can simply sit and begin. Take the text that you are going to reflect upon and place it on the study table along with (for example) writing materials, dictionary, tissue box, and anything else that you deem necessary. It is counterproductive to start arranging the study-space before the study begins.
To develop the intellect, no material is more conducive than the principles that govern the human experience. This body of knowledge has several names including , Vedanta (which literally translates as Culmination of knowledge), and sanatana dharma (meaning Eternal principles). Any text can be considered a Vedantic text-book, therefore, so long as it elucidates the truths regarding who we are and why we experience life the way we do. to any text, tradition, or teacher is a burden to the student and destructive to the purpose of the study.
Nowhere has the philosophy of life been so beautifully codified than in the Vedantic tradition of India. It is the culmination of the philosophical inquiry from generations of great thinkers, and stands unique among branches of knowledge in the world in that it attributes no authorship or ownership. The original contributors to this knowledge remain unknown. This ensures that the purity of the knowledge is retained, that it does not encumber the student with allegiances to personalities or communities.
The work of Vedanta Institute LA is inspired by the contemporary Indian philosopher , who has spent decades presenting this ancient philosophy in contemporary language. His introductory text on Vedanta The Fall of the Human Intellect outlines the basics of the human composition and the mechanisms of human experience. A deeper analysis of human life is presented in Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities.
Having arisen and refreshed yourself, take your seat and prepare to study. To begin, take a minute or two to set the most conducive mental climate. First, recognize the purpose of the study. Why are we spending this time in independent reflection? Realizing that intellectual development is an obligation to ourself and our own mental peace re-establishes the intention of the practice. This is important for setting the direction for the study and maintaining enthusiasm over time. Next, take a brief moment to feel a sense of for the luxury of being able to engage in this practice. Not everyone who desires to embark on a path of self-discovery through daily study enjoys the personal freedom to do so. Recognize and feel this.
The study itself consists of two broad principles:
- Take nothing for granted
- Question everything
The first discipline is a general intellectual disposition. To take something for granted is to passively accept it as true without adequate reason. Rather, we should maintain an healthy skepticism, maintaining an open mind to new ideas, but reserving judgement on them until all the evidence is in. This is where the second discipline comes in.
The practice of questioning is to take a text slowly and deliberately. Don’t be in a hurry to complete the reading of a text, we are looking to establish depth of understanding, not breadth of material covered. Take the text one paragraph at a time. Read it once to gain an overall understanding of the content, then return to the start, proceeding line-by-line. Begin to question: What are the ideas or concepts that the author is trying to convey to you? At this point take your writing materials and note down, perhaps in bullet-point form, each identifiably distinct concept as you discover it.
Now question each concept. What is the basis each concept? Are there stated or unstated assumptions? Is it a conclusion drawn from prior ideas? Is it arrived at through a logically consistent chain of reasoning? What are the consequences of this idea? Does it contradict what you already believe, or what you have previously read? You must not accept an idea as your own until it is admitted by your logic and reason. A philosophy is a buffet of ideas, presented to the student for his or her own benefit.
A separate sheet of paper is useful here, on which you can start to note down any queries or clarifications that you may have. Once the paragraph or section is completed, go back to this sheet and attempt to answer the questions you have posed. Where you are unsure, seek out clarification with someone who has greater experience with the knowledge.
A useful practice tool is to imagine that you are explaining the ideas to another person who has no prior knowledge. Your imaginary friend has just read the section from the text for the first time and asked, ‘What does this mean? What is this paragraph saying?’ The attempt to explain concepts to others is a good way of showing us where our own understanding falters. Once you have found an area of uncertainty or difficulty in explaining, return to it. Start the process of questioning it again, going into it in greater depth.
The process is slow but sure.