crossposted from my main blog, Praxis Mundi

There is an imminent wisdom nestled in the practice of ethnography; every important lesson along the spiritual path finds its analogue in the research process. Take, for instance, the anekāntavāda concept in Jainism. Robert Anton Wilson called them Reality Tunnels. The basic idea is that every individual perceives reality through a personal set of filters, though they seldom realize it. Jains tell the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where six blind men were asked to determine the shape of an elephant by touching it. One felt the tail and believed the object to be a rope. The one who felt the trunk believed it to be a tree, and so forth.

We all have the same tunnel vision when it comes to interpreting reality, and much of it can be attributed to culturally constructed filters. Undergraduate anthropology classes harp on cultural relativism as fundamental, but no one really believes it. At least not in the beginning. Belief is a physical condition, and physical conditions are induced through corporeal experience, not from a textbook or lecture (or blog post!). That’s where participant-observation comes into play. In a sense, the anthropological method can be described as the mining of new reality tunnels. To really do the job right, the ethnographer must place their body in a position where they can adopt the cosmological “vantage point” of the culture being studied. In assimilating a new set of cultural filters on reality, a researcher is forced to acknowledge, to physically believe (I’m sure you can tell the difference between physical and intellectual belief) that reality is plural and mutable. Or as Wilson put it, “Reality is what you can get away with.”

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