Round World, Flat World, and Epistemic Supremacy
Decades ago, I listened to a radio program in which a young man who had immigrated to the U.S. from somewhere in Asia described his experience as that of moving from the round world to the flat world.
I have conducted extensive searches over the years and have never been able to find the original radio program or any references online to “flat world” and “round world” used in the way described by the young man. So I apologize for not being able to name him or the precise country from which he came. But the distinction he made has been important to me. And his experience of sadness and alienation has resonated deeply with my life-long dismay at being surrounded by flat world views and approaches to life.
The round world is an alive, aware world: responsive, communicative, magical, and populated by beings seen and unseen, including ancestors.
The round world is fundamentally animist. It is full of living wisdom and communicates that wisdom everywhere: in and through every being, every object, and every circumstance. Impermanence is the round world’s theater.
The round world is not made up of separate, self-willed individuals. We can get a sense of the round world when we remember that we cannot take a breath without the participation and support of an entire planet.
Claiming the prize of individual achievement is a hopeless and ludicrous enterprise in the round world.
In the round world, the keys to successfully navigating life are collaboration, adaptation, deep listening, and skillful timing.
The flat world is the world of what you see is what you get: materialist, rationalist, and governed by obsessions with explanation, capture, command, and control.
The flat world is where “western” science is the measure and arbiter. So-called individual achievement is valued above collaboration.
The flat world is first and foremost a realm of unsubtle relating and impoverished communication.
The flat world is not innocently ignorant of the round world. Flat worlders actively reject the round world, claiming flat world epistemic supremacy, while at the same time stealing round world property and remaking it in a flat world way.
Epistemic supremacy means you assume that your definition of knowledge and knowing and your methods of gaining knowledge are superior.
The insistence on epistemic supremacy underpins and supports cultural appropriation by deeming exploited cultures and people “irrational,” “superstitious,” “backward,” and “unscientific.”
These designations are not prejudices that then give rise to exploitation. They are weaponized justifications for exploitation, authorizing exploiters to steal, judge, alter, repackage, and radically re-contextualize.*
An example of this is when people proclaim that wisdom traditions such as Ayurveda and hatha yoga are “better” without all of the spiritual “trappings.” Then they propagate (for pay) rationalistic, materialist, and even hedonistic versions of these traditions.
Epistemic supremacy underwrites attitudes of it “not mattering” if I appropriate, change, and charge for my personal versions of wisdom traditions about which I know virtually nothing. In fact, Epistemic supremacy gets me entirely off the hook for learning anything about the cultures I’m appropriating.
I can dismiss the integral role of mantra and Jyotish in Ayurveda when I have never practiced mantra or studied Jyotish. I can outright steal core concepts from Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan spiritual traditions and redeploy them in any way I like in my own writings as a Western professor or philosopher or other paid thought leader. I can build a “yoga” empire based on intentionally secularizing, commodifying, and regulating a tradition I don’t understand.
But the flat world doesn’t just steal round world knowledge, for instance, the knowledge of yogis, healers, indigenous-tradition doctors, shamans, midwives, and traditional farmers.
Round world practitioners are often violently made subjects under the control and command of the exploiting cultures.
The relationship of the westernized medical complex to midwives is a prime example. Midwifery has been accreting knowledge over the entire course of human and domesticated animal life. Yet in countries all over the world, midwives are banned, regulated, restricted, and subjected to the “professional” oversight of flat world medical complexes.
The assumption of epistemic supremacy is a violence and it begets violence. It robs people of the magic of being alive. It creates economic disparity and poverty. It destroys cultures and kills people, animals, and our planet.
Continuum & Kindness
Our real circumstance is that we exist on a continuum with all beings on the planet, visible to the ordinary eye and not. Round world experience is that of porosity, not boundaries.
When we experience ourselves living in a fluid, porous relationship with our environment and other beings, we emphasize continuity and intimacy, not separation and categorization. We are kinder, more inclusive, more respectful, and more reverent.
We are actually smarter and healthier when we don’t draw lines around our own bodies or anyone else’s; when we recognize how we are always being touched and penetrated by the totality of our circumstances.
Round is always right here.
Most of us humans actually do have more round world experiences than we might consciously recognize.
You are in the round world every time you encounter another person or animal and instantly know how they feel.
You are in the round world when you experience that deep, nameless grief at the destruction of our planet.
You are in the round world when you use your inner eyes to visualize or receive important insights in a dream.
You are in the round world when you feel uneasy or become ill from being in a subtly toxic environment. Or when your mood shifts instantly for the better when you see a beautiful landscape.
We sometimes don’t pay a lot of attention to these moments or give them much weight as reliable ways of knowing because the flat world generally rejects direct experience in favor of logic, reason, and mechanized, “objective” proofs.
We say, “That’s just my experience. We learned to say this from the flat world. While we do not all specifically engage with round world traditions of spiritual practice and healing, we have all been oppressed.
The suppression and oppression of round world epistemologies has cheated us out of relying on and having confidence in the immediacy of our own experience. And this circumstance creates a profound instability in the core of our lives and a harmful disassociation from our own unerring wisdom.
Think about this.
What if we didn’t have to wait for flat world scientists to “prove” that animals have feelings like ours and can self-reflect in order to stop torturing them and committing genocide against them?
What if the millennia of direct experience we have living with animals sufficed to prove that we should treat animals with more dignity and respect? What if our direct experience counted for more and the human-manufactured category boundaries between intention and instinct and human and animal broke down?
We would be kinder. We would develop more subtlety and skill at communicating and relating. We would feel less lonely. We would not be losing the diversity of our world.
Gifts of the round world
The round world is endlessly generous. Most fundamentally it offers us the natural experience of refuge, the profound experience of homecoming that occurs when we consciously contact that vast intelligence, filled with compassion.
I grew from being a child who was sure that my limited vision could be peeled open to reveal the world’s deep vitality and intelligence into an adult who has been privileged to participate in several ancient, round world wisdom traditions. The wisdom traditions I’ve participated in as a student are various spiritual traditions from India and Tibet; Ayurveda; Chinese and Tibetan divinatory traditions; and Jyotish.
Wisdom traditions teach us proper communication with nature. Infinite apprenticeship, not quick or final mastery, is the model for learning and living.
My entire life could be described as a return to the round world. And most of what I have tried to do is to bring others along with me.
My objections to the flat world can be described in political or cultural or philosophical terms. But my bottom-line desire is that we not miss out on the round world and its deep magic. The flat world robs everyone of joy, wonder, and home. And I want everyone to come home.
*Thanks to Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika speaking in Episode two of the podcast “Seeing White” for this insight.