Fritjof Capra became famous for his bestseller book “Tao of physics” published in 1975. It was one of the first books that tried to show the connection between Modern physics and Eastern Mysticism and succeeded in grabbing peoples’ attention. Who influenced Capra on this journey from a particle physicist to a no man's land? What kind of conversations did he have with these remarkable men? That is the focus of his book “Uncommon wisdom: Conversations with remarkable people”. What appealed to me about these conversations is that the questions that got raised in them are still quite relevant and the wisdom still uncommon. The book contains conversations with a dozen people spread across 8 chapters. Here I am summarising the nuggets from four of these conversations.
First you are a human being (Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1968): When Capra met the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1968, Capra was on the runway of his career as a physicists and it was about to take off. JK was giving a series of talks at the University of California, Santa Cruz where Capra was a faculty. Capra recalls, “I remember that I was fascinated as well as deeply disturbed by Krishnamurti’s lectures. After each evening talk Jacqueline and I stayed up for several hours more, sitting at our fireplace and discussing what Krishnamurti had said.”
JK had created a major confusion in Capra’s mind. He didn’t know how to marry his career ambition with JK’s advice of going beyond thought. Fortunately, he got an opportunity to meet JK the morning after one of his talks. “How can I be a scientist,” Capra asked JK, “and still follow your advice of stopping thought and attaining freedom from the known?” JK answered immediately. “First, you are a human being,” he said, “then you are a scientist. First, you have to become free, and this freedom cannot be achieved through thought. It is achieved through meditation – the understanding of the totality of life in which every form of fragmentation has ceased.” According to JK, once one has this understanding, he would be able to work as a scientist without any problems. Capra recalls, “Krishnamurti answered my question in ten seconds in a way that completely solved my problem.”
Find pleasure in the process not just the results (Werner Heisenberg, 1972): Capra met Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of Quantum Mechanics and Capra’s hero, at the Max Plank Institute in Munich, Germany. By then Capra had published the first article on the new theme titled “The dance of Shiva: The Hindu view of matter in the light of Modern Physics”. Heisenberg had sent him encouraging response to this article.
During this meeting Heisenberg recalled his India visit in 1929. He stayed as a guest with Rabindranath Tagore and had long conversations with the poet. “After these conversations with Tagore,” Heisenberg said, “Some of the ideas that seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.” In 1972, Heisenberg was 71 years old, way past his prime time as a scientist. Capra asked him what kind of results he was working towards. Heisenberg explained him the goals of the research program and added that he found as much pleasure in the process of research as in achieving those goals. What a profound statement!
Take a small step, wait for the feedback and then proceed (Fritz Schumacher, 1977): When Capra met Fritz Schumacher at his Caterham house near London, Capra had published “Tao of physics” and Schumacher was famous for his book “Small is beautiful”. Unlike Capra, Schumacher, the prophet of sustainability movement, was not very optimistic about Physics creating the new world view. However, unlike Capra, he carried a vision of an alternative future, a sustainable future which was influenced by, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhist monks in Burma.
How does one work in this alternative world? “Because of smallness and patchiness of our knowledge,” Schumacher said, “We have to go in small steps. We have to leave room for non-knowledge. Take a small step and wait for the feedback and then proceed further. There is wisdom in smallness, you see.” What a humble approach!
How to introduce technology without destroying the culture? (Indira Gandhi, 1982): Capra met Indira Gandhi at her office in the Parliament House in Delhi. She was back in power after the post-emergency debacle and had experienced untimely death of her younger son. Capra had various images of Indira Gandhi e.g. strong willed, autocratic, tough and arrogant, spiritual person etc. After exchanging the pleasantries, Gandhi asked Capra, “My problem is, how can I introduce new technologies into India without destroying the existing culture? We want to learn as much as we can from the Western countries. But we want to keep our roots. Today, it seems much easier and cheaper to buy plastic than to spend time with these crafts,” she said with a sad smile, “What a pity!”
“The people in India,” she said, “no matter how poor they are, have a special quality of wisdom, an inner strength which comes from our spiritual tradition. I would like them to keep this quality, this special presence, while ridding themselves of poverty." As Capra started giving a few suggestions, Gandhi started taking notes.