60 Minutes: With Fritjof Capra Interview

Fritjof Capra talks about his journey towards balancing science and spirituality

‘I can give a scientific basis to bolster certain values like ecological sustainability and human dignity.’   | Photo Credit: Basso Cannarsa

A 78-year-old physicist who is now Director of Centre for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, Fritjof Capra is best known for his first book, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975), which has sold over a million copies worldwide. He had his epiphany while he was sitting by the ocean one afternoon and felt the cascading waves and sand forming a cosmic dance which he intuitively likened to the dance of Shiva, that he had been reading about. This started a long inquiry into Eastern religions and more particularly Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. In 1972, he drew the parallel between Shiva’s dance and the dance of subatomic particles in an article titled ‘The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics’. This cosmic dance then became a central metaphor in his international bestseller that is still in print with 40 editions worldwide. In 2004, the Indian government donated a large Nataraja Shiva statue to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, which formalised this connection between Indian spirituality and the most cutting-edge physics research. In 2015, Tamil scholar Aravindan Neelakandan wrote an article titled ‘Fritjof Capra and the Dharmic Worldview’ in the online Sutra Journal. As Capra says, “It spans the entire arc of my work from the Dance of Shiva to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.” I spoke to Capra on the sidelines of a recent meeting of the Greenaccord international environmental journalists in Florence, Italy.

How did you, as a practising physicist, get interested in Hindu philosophy?

It started actually in my childhood. My mother was a poet and my father a lawyer, but an amateur philosopher, so in my family there was a lot of talk about art and philosophy, very wide-ranging dinner-table conversations. My father had a very well-known German translation of the Upanishads. I had also heard about Buddhism from my father. I really got interested in Indian philosophy in the 1960s; it came through the artists – the beat poets in San Francisco like Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

If you want to be very precise, the very first contact was through Lawrence Ferlinghetti. My mother was a poet and she read international poets very widely. She gave me a copy of Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind. This book interested me in the Beat poets and, through these poets, in Indian philosophy, which I started to read about. Ferlinghetti is still alive, at 98, and he lives above his bookstore in San Francisco. I met him several times and wrote to him recently because I realised that it was his book that introduced me to Indian thought.

In the 1960s, I became part of the counter-culture. I began to practise yoga and Zen meditation, before finally settling on Taoist tai-chi, which I practise till today. I also experimented with psychedelics, which exposed me to alternative visions of reality through books, through classical texts. The Bhagavad Gita was an eye-opener for me, a profound experience. This was the first original source that I read and it was and is the best. Then I read a lot of books about Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki.

In 1969, I met Jiddu Krishnamurthi who became a big influence on my thinking. I was never a devotee, but he was a very interesting independent thinker. He gave a lecture at University of California, where I was teaching and doing physics research. I had read his books before and one of his collections of writings known as Freedom from the Known. I was very puzzled by it: I was a young post-doc physicist, just beginning a career: here was this Indian sage telling me that I must forget about knowledge, about language, I must free myself from all that. I managed to have an audience with him through various machinations. He was very impressive at that time; he had that impeccably coiffed hair, immaculate clothes; his whole demeanour was sage-like. I had read the writings of Carlos Castaneda about Don Juan: here was a Don Juan right before my eyes!

As soon as we sat down, I asked him: “How do I free myself from the known as a budding physicist embarking on a career?” He immediately responded: “First you are a human being. Only then are you a physicist. You have to liberate yourself as a human being and that you cannot do through thinking; you can only do that through meditation. Once you have achieved that liberation, then go back and do physics. I love science.” He showed me that you can combine different states of consciousness and use them when they are appropriate. For me, this was very important at the beginning of my career as a scientist who was interested in different spiritual traditions.

I want to take you right to the present, where you must know that in India we have moved from Hinduism to Hindutva, with all kinds of ultra right-wing Hindu ideologies taking root with the present government. There are throwbacks to claims of Indians possessing scientific knowledge like, for instance, Ganesha with his elephant head being a case of Indians knowing of plastic surgery. Does it disappoint you to learn that we in India have turned our backs on our own spiritual traditions?

It does disappoint me as an example of religion taking over from spirituality. In my 2014 book The Systems View of Life, which is a synthesis of my work, my co-author Pier Luigi Luisi and I have a chapter on science and spirituality. We make the strong point on the distinction. Spirituality is a perception of reality in a special state of consciousness and the characteristics of this experience of belonging to a larger whole, connected with everything, are independent of historical and cultural context. But then, spiritual teachers who have this experience are eager to share with others – like the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. When he had his enlightenment, he went to Varanasi and started teaching in a park – typically, spiritual teachers want to share their knowledge. The organised expression of spirituality is religion, which always depends on cultural and historical context. Unfortunately, religion often ossifies and the teachings are expressed as dogma; experience is replaced by faith. You have to believe; you don’t have to experience. These religions, all over the world, also align themselves with politics and very often with right-wing politics. In America, it is the same with the Protestant ethic and preachers like televangelists.

Do you see a global connection between all these developments?

Yes, I do. I work a lot in Brazil. I have been there many times. It was originally a Catholic country but now there is this new breed of Protestant churches which first offer very valuable services to very poor communities. But then, they exploit them and say: ‘We can help you get out of poverty but you have to pray and you have to give us money.’ They absolutely destroy them; it’s a huge business.

I first went to India in 1980, after The Tao of Physics had been published five years earlier; I was a fringe author in the U.S. and Europe. Quantum physics and Zen Buddhism weren’t things that people would easily accept. The book was very successful but it wasn’t taken seriously by the establishment. I was asked to give a series of lectures at University of Bombay; I was received by the Vice-Chancellor, I met leading politicians, including Indira Gandhi in Delhi. My work was totally embraced by the Indian establishment. I was very puzzled but then I realised that the mystical core of Hinduism was part of the establishment, not the fringe.

As you know, Shiva, whose dance informed the connection you made with the collision of sub-particle physics, has been appropriated by ultra right-wing groups in my city, Mumbai. Even Hindus would today hesitate to own up to their faith because it has been used by reactionary political parties.

Hinduism has always been known as a very tolerant religion; it can embrace everything. Well, the world is in a sad state now.

Are you disappointed that the idealism of the 60s and 70s on economic and ecological issues has been negated today? The prime example is the U.S.

I see this as a cycle, which is very consistent with Indian thinking. Let me take you through my personal experience from the 60s to the 90s. In the 60s, as part of the counter-culture, we were protesting against the conventional way of life with ideas of community, spirituality, sensuality, of a different ethic, and so on. And we didn’t have an alternative. In the 70s, two movements emerged which were the two pillars of an alternative: ecology and feminism. The feminist movement wasn’t new but there was a new wave of feminism. In the 80s, these movements coalesced into a political manifestation: the Green parties. The first was in Germany, which was a coalition of young socialists, a revolutionary movement within the Social Democratic Party. There were people with a spiritual background, followers of Rudolf Steiner, who promoted grassroots democracy. Then there was the peace movement. The Greens had four pillars of democratic politics: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence.

The Green movement became international and by the end of the 80s, there were many parties, in parliaments. By this time, 10 years after I published my second book, The Turning Point, I really believed we were now at this turning point. What happened then was something that no one foresaw: the Information Technology (IT) revolution. With the rise of computing power and telecommunications, the rise of e-mails and the Internet, this operated against the alternative view of the world and brought in a new materialism.

In theory, it would suggest just the opposite: the surge in communications should have made us more interdependent?

The IT revolution was critical for establishing global capitalism. These networks of financial flows didn’t happen from one day to the next: there were many stops and starts, with people trying to impose economic restrictions. There was Reagonomics in the U.S. and Thatcherism in the U.K. Finally, what emerged was this global network of financial flows which dominated society, destroyed communities. It is very powerful and was designed explicitly without any ethics. So when you invest your money, you have machines that do it for you; you have a computerised network of investment consultants and so on, and they only apply one rule: what makes the most money. They don’t ask about the environment or health and so on. It could have been built into the system but they aren’t. When that happens in the 90s, this new kind of materialism emerged — a fascination with gadgets, with buying things online and so on. But the counter-culture continued to muster its forces: they reached a critical point in the 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation where a global civil society was formed.

I often tell people that this global civil society has its roots in the 60s and 70s: networking wasn’t invented with the Internet. We were networking long before the Internet. I have been friends, to take an Indian example, with Vandana Shiva for decades, and with (Gandhian) Satish Kumar. We wouldn’t write to each other too much but we would meet occasionally at conferences or we would visit each other, so there was this network of scholars and activists. When the Internet came along, we had better communication, with websites and social media, but we still maintained personal contacts. So I still see Vandana and Satish every now and then.

Despite the global community you mention, hasn’t the rise of financial capitalism smothered it?

Yes it has. But we are also very strong because of our numbers. With the Internet, you see demonstrations. See the current struggle in Spain with Catalonia: they can get a hundred thousand people in the street in two days because communication is so fast. We have had demonstrations against Monsanto, for instance; there have been various causes that bring masses of people on to the streets. We have our scholars, our institutes of research and it is global.

What we have been writing about for decades is now happening: climate change, for instance. I wrote about global warming in 1989. For decades, no one listened and made fun of us, but we are now in the midst of a climate catastrophe. Now I think the situation is changing because businesses which don’t have ideologies — they want to invest money, to flourish — are turning away from fossil fuels. If they had listened to us then, we would have had a different world today. It’s almost too late, hopefully not.

Just yesterday I read in Der Spiegel that Siemens, one of the biggest German companies, has urged politicians to get out of fossil fuels, saying: ‘This isn’t the future, the future is renewables.’ In the U.S. we have this situation where business as usual and the old way of doing things have reached their extreme with Trump. So when Trump says he wants to get out of the Paris climate accord, and end the war on coal, it doesn’t matter what he says because coal power plants have been closed. The U.S. will adhere to the Paris agreement in practice, whether or not Trump is part of it. So in that sense, it’s very positive. It may be too late but, still, things are moving now.

In India, progressives feel that the forces against them are so strong that it’s difficult to counter them.

But doesn’t your Prime Minister talk about solar energy and renewables?

He talks about it. There’s a business angle to it. In Paris in 2015 he and President Sarkozy of France launched the International Solar Alliance, with its headquarters in India. This is to include the 120-odd countries between the two tropics who need solar energy, which Indian companies may be able to provide at costs lower than that of Western companies. But to come back to the forces of international finance capitalism: these forces are so strong, how can one counter them?

We have to build alternative communities and do things that don’t depend on global capitalism. In the energy field, we can have independent solar power: in California, for instance, I don’t pay for electricity because I have solar panels on the roof and California is such that I don’t need batteries to store electricity. The energy I produce is sold to the grid.

To come to the global political situation, everywhere you hear of Brexit, Catalonia and Italy’s two northernmost and richest regions, Piedmont and Lombardy, wanting to secede from their countries. Would ecologists of the 60s and 70s welcome this as a sign that people are becoming more self-reliant?

Actually, the Greens in the 1980s had a very good concept — a Europe of the regions. So Catalonia, the two parts of Belgium, they said, should loosen their connections with the States they are in, strengthen their connections with the regions they are in and have joint projects between regions. This has been happening, of course. Regions and cities in Europe interact with one another directly. The solution in Europe is to grant these regions more autonomy, to embed them in a European context and once that is done, it becomes less important what they relate to as part of a nation.

To go back to India, you have worked with Schumacher, who wrote Small is Beautiful. As an economist, he was invited by Prime Minister Nehru to advise the newly-set up Planning Commission. It was then that he visited Burma, which affected him and he proposed ‘Buddhist Economics’ as a gentler way of advancing economically. However, one of the ironies of life is that Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader we have admired so much, is now guilty of genocide in evicting the Rohingyas from her country. But tell us more about Schumacher.

When I wrote about physics, I lived in London. I was preparing myself with all kinds of research in books about Indian and Chinese philosophy, when I came across a review of Small is Beautiful in The Guardian. The review was titled ‘Buddhist Economics’. I bought the book and thought this was something I should get into at a later stage. In the late 70s, I started to write The Turning Point, and realised I wanted to write about the changing paradigms not only in physics but also in biology, economics, psychology. I couldn’t do it alone, because I didn’t know enough about these subjects. I was looking for advisers, so I contacted Schumacher and visited him.

Do you think that is another movement we have turned our back on?

Yes. I said before we have to build local communities. The other connection to Schumacher was Satish Kumar of Schumacher College in the U.K. He published the journal Resurgence for which Schumacher wrote several articles. When he founded the college, I gave some 20 courses there from the early 90s.

Is there some way we creatively have to find to bring these small communities back into the mainstream?

Schumacher College is at the centre of transformative learning. When people go there, they learn together, they live together, they cook together — like an ashram, which came naturally to Satish as a Gandhian. We need to scale these up, many centres of this kind, but that isn’t easy: it has to be small-scale.

In the U.S., people are trying to, even within universities, to form programmes in which they are taught in different ways. It’s a difficult process. But there are quite a few; I know them because they invite me to teach there.

So you have hope for the future?

There are two major problems, among many others: climate change and economic inequality. Violence and war also exist but are derived from inequality. What has happened from my personal experience is that I now teach online in what I call Capra Course (capracourse.net). I’m now running the fourth course, two per year. I have between 150 and 200 participants from 50 countries, many from India too. You get one lecture per week, every Wednesday; you can access the previous lectures but not the future ones. I spend 30 minutes every day, answering questions and comments. People are very enthusiastic, but are confused about certain aspects: I can give a scientific basis to bolster certain values like ecological sustainability and human dignity. I don’t go to the headquarters of the Republican Party to convince them — not that they would invite me anyway! I address people who are already convinced but confused about certain details. This is a very positive and hopeful development.

The writer, former editor of two major Mumbai dailies, is sometimes called journalist and other times environmentalist, but prefers to be known as an environmental journalist.


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