‘You can’t help anyone get clearer if you are not clear. So get clear.’
The first time I met Vanessa Andreotti, I was introducing her at a conference on climate change. Among the things she said in her keynote that day, I remember her distinguishing between three levels of response: thinking, acting and being. We’re in a mess that’s too deep to think our way out of it, she was saying, and too deep to act our way out of it. What’s called for is not just a change in our thoughts or our actions, but a change in our way of being.
When you’re up against the urgency of a thing like climate change, an urgency set out in the upward sweeping curve of the charts of emissions and atmospheric concentrations of CO2, this kind of talk about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ can be hard for people to hear. But the way I heard it, it’s not that thinking and doing are irrelevant, it’s that they are insufficient: our thoughts and actions have a chance of becoming helpful at the point when they are grounded in a change in our being.
Today’s advice gets me thinking about ‘clarity’ as a state of being — the state in which we have the possibility of becoming helpful. And approached from this direction, I want to say that we have a sense for clarity in the same way that we have a sense of smell: it’s wired into our bodies, rooted in our evolutionary inheritance; we know at a bodily level whether someone is speaking from a place of clarity, and this knowledge does not depend on having words or concepts in which to express it.
A lot of my work has involved standing up and speaking in front of a room full of people. Sometimes this is as a guest in classrooms or lecture theatres in academic institutions, or at conferences alongside people whose job involves teaching in universities. Over time, I become aware of how similar what I do can look to what they do, and how different it can and should be. I may be speaking about things I’ve read into deeply, but it is not my role to represent the state of knowledge in any field of research, and if I allow myself to be confused with someone who can do that, then I risk becoming a fraud. I’m more like a stand-up comedian without the punchlines, or a preacher without a church. Unlike the scholars in whose company I find myself, what I can bring stands or falls on the state of being in which I show up.
There’s a speech I’ve often quoted from the playwright Mark Ravenhill. He’s speaking at the opening of the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, to an audience of mostly younger performers, and he tells them:
to be a good artist you have to be the person who walks in to a space with integrity and tells the truth. That’s what marks you out from the audience and why they’re sitting over there and you’re standing up there: you are the most truthful person in that room.
It strikes me that this ‘truthfulness’ is the condition of clarity, the state of being for which I’m saying we have a bodily sense. We can feel whether the person on the stage is speaking from this place or not, whether there is something getting in the way.
I work with words and thoughts, it’s a big part of what I bring to any stage on which I get asked to speak, and yet my favourite piece of feedback after a talk was the time my friend Ansuman told me, ‘What you said was great, but what mattered was the way you were.’ There is a song beneath the words, and if that song is not there or does not come through clearly, then it doesn’t matter how clever the words are, it’s all just noise.
And at this point, how different is the ‘clarity’ which we are talking about from the ‘charity’ of which Paul writes to the Corinthians? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’ In more recent translations, the word for that state of being is simply ‘love’.
Västerås, 21 April, 2020
This is the thirty-fourth in a series of commentaries on ‘A teacher’s advice on how to be clear’, Charlie Davies’s reworking of the 1000-year-old Buddhist text, ‘Advice from Atisha’s Heart’. I’m writing these as I take part in Clarity for Teachers, a course that Charlie is leading. You can find out more on the How To Be Clear website.