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Ranjini George: Practicing Presence

Dr. Ranjini George holds a PhD in English Literature from Northern Illinois University, USA, an MA in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, Canada. More recently, she won the first place in Canada’s inaugural Coffee Shop Author Contest for her travel memoir, a work-in-progress, Miracle of Flowers: In the Footsteps of an Emperor, a Goddess, a Story and a Tiffin-Stall

She was an Associate Professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. She currently teaches Stoicism, Mindfulness and Creative Writing at SCS, University of Toronto, classes such as Stoicism and the Good Life, Dear Diary: Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank and Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness, Stoicism and Writing for Discipline and Productivity, and Meditation and Writing. In 2019, she received the SCS, University of Toronto Excellence in Teaching award. Her book, Through My Mother’s Window: Emirati Women Tell their Stories and Recipes, was published in Dubai in December 2016.

How did you become interested in this philosophy?

My interest in philosophy began with my study of literature at Lady Shri Ram College and at Stephen’s College in New Delhi. I took an MPhil class entitled “Existential and Phenomenological Approaches to Literature,” offered by Professor R.W. Desai. We read Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Buber. In an earlier class, also offered by Professor Desai, we read the Transcendentalists and Henry David Thoreau. In my study of Greek literature, I studied Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. My interest in philosophy through the lens of literature continued at graduate school in the US, where I explored the philosophical vision of writers such William Golding and John Steinbeck. Philosophy and literature interested me theoretically, and as a way of understanding the world.  Somewhere along the way, I acquired more than one edition of Marcus’ Meditations.

In the 1990s, when I was living in Middle East, I received a museum-size bust as a gift. The story of “How I got the Bust” is long, one that I tell in my memoir-in-progress, Miracle of Flowers.

The bust perched on a column in my living room in Dubai, remained unidentified for close to nine years. On a visit to the Ancient Agora in Athens, I discovered that he was the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius. With a name, I had a story.

In early 2019, an immigrant to Canada and now living in Toronto, I stumbled upon (and pre-ordered) Donald Robertson’s book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. As a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, I was especially struck by the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism. Reading Donald’s book was pivotal in my understanding of Stoicism—of philosophy as a way of life. I reread the Meditations, engaging more deeply with Marcus’ ideas, and Stoicism as a whole.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Impermanence and the preciousness of human life.

Earlier today, at 00.00, 22 January 2022, my teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh passed away at his root temple in Hue, Vietnam. Memorial services are underway, live streamed from Vietnam and the Plum Village retreat center in France.

Socrates calls death, the “bogeyman.” Marcus talks of death repeatedly. The Buddha tells us to remind ourselves of our death not just every day but every moment. Some find this morbid. I find it invigorating, a reminder to make good use of my “precious human life.”

Seneca says, “Each day is a life.” There is nothing more important than living with the awareness that we will die.

“This is it.” Thich Nhat Hanh said. The present moment is all we have. 

The Dalai Lama says that it is not important whether we are religious or not. What is important is to cultivate warm-heartedness, kindness, wisdom and compassion. We learn how to cultivate peace and happiness (eudaimonia). Daily, we raise “bodhchitta,” which is the aspiration to benefit others because, as Marcus reminds us in the Meditations, we are interconnected, one body; or, to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase, we “inter-are.” 

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is “No birth. No death. Only Continuation.” We are the continuation of those who inspire us to live well. Now, my teacher is not in the form that I knew him. He is the cloud that has become rain. He is in my mindfulness practice—in my in-breath and out-breath. Marcus died 1900 years before. Yet, we meet him on the page. He is a voice that echoes through space and time, a friend and mentor, inspiring us to live well.

In Book One of The Meditations, Marcus acknowledges his gratitude to his parents, his tutors, adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, and so on. He was aware that those he thanked had flaws. Our role models are not perfect, but we can be grateful for their example and learn from them. Having this sense of sangha or community is helpful. We will not feel alone on this path—we travel with those who have come before, those who live now, and our friends in the future.  

Practice daily that which is in alignment with your core values. Remind yourself of what kind of human being you aspire to be and what work you would like to accomplish in this world.

Dr. Ranjini George

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Practice. Practice. Practice.

As Seneca reminds us, “Each day is a life.” Practice daily that which is in alignment with your core values. Remind yourself of what kind of human being you aspire to be and what work you would like to accomplish in this world.

Whatever we practice, we become better at. Practice giving in to anger, and you will be become an angry person. Practice kindness, and you will grow kinder. Practice strengthens our muscle of self-discipline as we direct it towards values that we cherish. We may not feel like it. But we do it anyway.

In my Memoir as Spiritual Practice and Meditation and Writing classes, I teach that writing is a practice. Meditation is a practice.

For over two decades, I have kept a journal. This is my way of living an examined life. Every morning I write three or four pages (sometimes more) in longhand—as Julia Cameron recommends. Drawing from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, I ask myself each day: What did I do (accomplish)? What did I omit? What could I have done better (more skilfully)?

We bring prosoche (attention) to our days, our time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, Time=Life. As we bring our attention to time, we begin to master time. We make time our ally, our friend. We use what time we’ve been given, and we use it well.

Change happens slowly and can be difficult. Enduring change requires intention, contemplation, review, and self-discipline. We ground our efforts in our “view.” Why are we doing this? For example, if I’m trying to lose weight and I stop myself from reaching for a second cookie, instead of feeling deprived, I could reframe that moment as one of practicing the Stoic virtue of temperance. A feeling of deprivation is then reframed as joyful effort. The same goes with writing. Even if the Muse feels distant, I’m here at my desk, exercising the virtue of discipline and creativity, and doing my work as a human being. 

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

So what can serve as our escort and our guide? One thing and one thing alone, philosophy; and that consists in keeping the guardian-spirit within us inviolate and free from harm.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.17

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Much of what I write and teach has come through my own struggle to live my life well. For example, I struggled with feeling overworked and overwhelmed. I struggled with fixating on outcome instead of enjoying the present moment of creativity. So, I researched topics such as discipline and tried to understand where my stumbling blocks of perfectionism and procrastination stemmed from. I studied with teachers from different wisdom traditions who warned about the suffering of egoic fixation. So much of our suffering comes from our feeling of separation from others and our incessant craving for more.

A long-time practitioner of meditation, I brought this research and training to my writing practice. My classes at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, classes such as Mindfulness, Stoicism and Writing for Discipline and Productivity, come from personal experience and my concentrated research and study in these areas.  My classes are open to everyone and many of them are offered online and include guest visits from internationally renowned philosophers and writers such as Donald Robertson, Eric Weiner, Charlie Gilkey, Kij Johnson, Mark Matousek, Rob Colter and so on. These classes can be taken toward a Creative Writing, Arts and Humanities or Mindfulness certificate, or as a one-off class.

If you are interested in my writing, a few of my stories are accessible online. “Taj Mahal and Petha”, deals with female infanticide, and was published in Agni, Boston University literary magazine. Recently I had an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Blue Flowers, published in Stoicism Today. I also have a number of free podcasts, meditations and interviews on the subjects of Stoicism, meditation and writing on my website. My book Through my Mother’s Window: Emirati Women Tell their Stories and Recipes brings Dubai, its food, stories and landscape to life. The book can be ordered online.

I am happy to say that I am offering the first Stoicism course in the Arts and Humanities stream at SCS, University of Toronto, Stoicism and the Good Life

I’ve added on other courses that have been a delight to teach, such as Dear Diary: Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy… 

It would be a delight and honor to give a talk or workshop at the place where so much of what I love and treasure began. As we gather and discuss philosophy, we become the continuation of some of the greatest minds who walked this planet: Plato, Socrates, Zeno, and so many others. It was here that Western philosophy began.

In October 2019, on a visit to Greece for the Modern Stoicon conference, I first visited the ruins of Plato’s Academy. I did not imagine that one day philosophers would gather here again, as they once had centuries ago.

On one of the Plato Academy videos, Donald mentions the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker who in 1970 saw that the site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was marked by a tarnished plaque on a brewery. Wanamaker took it upon himself to initiate the restoration of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and today plays are performed there.

One day, fate permitting, this will be true of Plato’s Academy. The impossible can be made possible through intention and effort. I thank all those involved in this visionary and historic undertaking.

To find out more about Dr. Ranjini George

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