When it came to advising Aurovilians, Mother didn’t beat about the bush
“The first thing needed is the inner discovery, to find out what one truly is behind social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances. At the centre there is a being, free and vast and knowing, who awaits our discovery and who should become the active centre of our being and our life in Auroville.” (The Mother)
The problem, I suspect, is that while every Aurovilian sees other Aurovilians staggering under the weight of hang-ups and cultural conditionings, poor things, none of us seem to believe we're carrying any baggage ourselves. I used to believe this, until...
I'll tell you a story. I was educated at a school whose purpose, back in the 1850s when it was founded, was to train its pupils to rule and administer the British Empire. By the time I reached its ivied walls that Empire had vanished. However while we boys were no longer exhorted by winey-faced Colonels at the annual Speech Day to take up the ‘white man's burden', in other, infinitely subtle, ways my school inculcated me with an image of the world and my place in it which reached back to that previous age.
There was still the unquestionable assumption, for example, that Britain (well England , actually) was best, and that Queen's English was the only language one needed to master (apart, that is, from Latin and classical Greek) in order to master the world.
Now, fast forward to around 1980. I'm riding my cycle along a path near Utility canyon. A villager on a cycle approaches from the other direction. We meet. We stop. I ask him to move out of the way as the only navigable part of the sand at that point is on the left side of the path: I know my Highway Code. He refuses. I ask him, rather more strongly, to move out of the way. He refuses. We start pushing each other. Finally we have to be separated by a passing Aurovilian....
O.K. there were plenty of mitigating circumstances, there always are. But I ask myself – if the man I had met on that narrow path had been an Englishman who addressed me in Queen's English, would I have reacted in the same way, however unreasonable his behaviour? I think not. At some level, my public school conditioning had clicked in.
This sounds like something horribly akin to racism and I hope, I really hope, that I wouldn't behave in the same way today. In fact, I think there is very little conscious racism in today's Auroville. On the other hand, I think there's quite a lot of what I would term ‘unconscious culturalism' – thought patterns and behaviour influenced by unconscious attitudes and assumptions inherited from our cultural upbringing.
These assumptions may differ dramatically from culture to culture. So when a group of Aurovilians of different nationalities meet together, they may think they are speaking the same language, but the meaning they give to certain terms and the behaviour they find appropriate may be quite different. This, needless to say, can cause problems....
Take our ‘apex' groups. Today, for the first time in Auroville's history, the Auroville Council and Working Committee include many Aurovilians born in the local villages. This is fine, indeed it's long overdue. However, the effectiveness of the two bodies was initially seriously hindered by, among other things (and there are always lots of other factors), a collision between different cultural assumptions and behaviours.
For example, the local Aurovilians on the Working Committee do not favour email communication when it comes to debating and deciding upon Working Committee issues. Their preference, as one of them put it, is for face-to-face contact. This is not always possible, so tensions have developed with some other Working Committee members who felt that the local Aurovilians were irresponsible in not reading or responding electronically. The local Aurovilians, feeling that their competence was being called into question, point out that they do a great deal of important work in the villages which only they have the knowledge and aptitude for.
In fact, the real difference here is not in the level of commitment to Auroville, as some people unfairly insinuated. The difference is between a culture which places more emphasis upon heart values, upon knowledge and action through personal contact, and a culture which is more mind-based and so able to operate relatively ‘impersonally'.
Another source of friction stems from the perception that, in public, the local Aurovilians tend to stand together rather than expressing themselves as individuals. This is undoubtedly overstated. But if there is a grain of truth in this it seems to reflect a culture which stresses the importance of family and clan relationships, a culture where the individual draws his or her sense of identity primarily from the group, as opposed to the Western model which elevates the virtues of individualism.
Now, when it comes to cultural assumptions, one is not necessarily ‘better' than another. Individualism is an invaluable tool against indoctrination and superstition but it also can weaken the sense of responsibility to society at large. Family and clan loyalties help sustain community, but they can also lead to the neglect of the greater good in the interests of one's family or clan.
In other words, when such unconscious cultural assumptions click in it is invariably the larger community, the larger ideal, which misses out. So is it any wonder that Mother was so insistent upon the Aurovilians getting beyond them?
Of course, that's not the end of it. In addition to cultural conditionings there extend far out behind us, like an invisible comet's trail, the unique individual experiences and memories which also help form and sustain whom we think we are. Yet even our responses to personal experiences are often culturally-conditioned.
What can we do about this? As a first step, maybe we can help each other, lovingly and without judgement, to discover our cultural assumptions and make them visible. For simply through speaking about them we can begin to disentangle ourselves from tentacles which stretch back over many generations and down, deep down into the depths of our unconscious.
This won't be unalloyed fun; it's never comfortable to discover that the truths one has grown up with are less than absolute. But what have we got to lose?
Nothing but ourselves. The transient and, let's face it, not terribly interesting selves which mask the “being, free and vast and knowing, who awaits our discovery”.