Agro-ecology, love & Socrates – part 1
An exclusive interview with PIERRE RABHI on a life of purpose, traditions and modernism, agro-ecology, Socrates, and transcendent love.
Q: You spent your childhood in an oasis in Algeria, but then had to face the modern world quite early in your life. How did such opposing cultural experiences mold the man you are today?
PR: It was not easy for me. I was born and raised in a Muslim environment, in an oasis in the South of Algeria. When I was 4 years old, I lost my mother and that was a defining moment in my life. Soon after that, coal was discovered in our region and so the French came to operate the mine, as Algeria was still one of their colonies then. Coal mining caused a deep change in our lives, in our culture, in our traditions and in our biotope. It upset everything. Our little oasis, which had been so quiet for so long, was suddenly in a sort of turmoil fraught with extremely rapid changes.
Many of our people became miners and were exploited, and that is when my father started to worry about our future. He thought that the rules of the game were no longer in our hands, so he entrusted me to a childless French couple, and they took care of me and introduced me to a new culture. That is how I lived alternatively in the modern world and tradition, Christianity and Islam, in a constant duality. I was confronted with totally incompatible beliefs, especially as far as religion was concerned. The credo of Islam states that God did not have a child, whereas the Christians claim that Jesus was the Son of God. So I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, as it were, and it was not very comfortable. That is how my humble life started.
When I was a teenager, my questions became more pressing. No answer was ever obvious, however, as I was aware of the impossibility of both religions agreeing. Then I thought that philosophers might be able to give me another answer, so I read a lot. I was not really brilliant at school, where I felt bored, and having read so many philosophical works I gave the last word to Socrates, who said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” That is how it was, and that is how it still is.
Q: A few years later you went to France. Can you explain what pushed you to settle down in a secluded area of the Cevennes, a choice that was going to change the rest of your life?
PR: First I landed in Paris, at the heart of the hectic circle of self-satisfied modernism, where people claimed they had found the answer to humankind’s quest for happiness.
I had to earn a living, so I became a skilled worker in a company, where I had a new opportunity to observe the human condition. That experience helped me question the Parisian belief at the time of what defined happiness. Little by little I understood what human bondage meant: bartering one’s existence for a salary, even if it meant risking one’s life. It was not about how to live but how to exist. Then I kept thinking about the wealth nature offered; such beautiful things that no one could ever possibly appreciate, because life meant eleven months spent in a coma and one month to resuscitate every year, and nothing more.
Then I met a girl whose aspirations were similar to mine. We asked ourselves, “Could we really spend a whole life being stuck behind closed doors within a city? Why shouldn’t we go towards nature, towards large spaces and the infinite world with its vast skies and areas?” So, we decided to go back to the land and settle as small farmers.
Q: How did you do it? How did you manage to live in the country, far away from everything?
PR: We did not have the skills or training for it. Returning to the land was for us a new initiation. How to become farmers ? First I went to agricultural college and graduated, and then I worked on a farm in order to learn the real practical skills and what it really meant. For me, it was a first awakening. I immediately understood that what we call modern agriculture is about becoming a murderer of nature and of the soil, due to the constant use of toxic chemicals. They were used for everything – sprayed on the ground, on the vegetation, in the environment etc. Agriculture had become a destructive practice.
That was how I came to see it, all the more so because the doctor who introduced me to the country worked in public healthcare and could testify to the damage that had resulted from such extensive use of pesticides. So I was in good hands, at the heart of a very practical training that was not limited to theoretical principles. Then I said to myself that if I could not do without such destructive practices, I’d better do something else than tilling the land.
My friend the physician led me to discover Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles. I read the books of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, one of Steiner’s colleagues, who explained that biodynamic methods in accordance with nature would even have a positive impact on the soil. So I practiced biodynamic farming to begin with, then I devoted myself to organic agriculture, and now I specialize in agro-ecology. On our farm we experimented with non-toxic farming, in both agriculture and breeding, and everything went well.
From that period onwards I became a sort of spokesperson, an advocate of natural, ecological and organic agriculture. I wanted to share my experience so I wrote a book entitled, From the Sahara to the Cevennes. It was published and I received an award from the Cevennes Academy. In the book, I exposed only facts and gave no lectures; I just wanted to talk about the course of my life and show what changes I went through, changes that in fact revealed the general trend of modern life would take. I wrote more books and as they were successful I went on writing. At the same time, I became more engaged.
Having managed to survive and produce food within our own space, I wanted to see if agriculture that complied with the laws of life could work for the poorest farmers. So I went to Africa and we created our first agro-ecological center in Burkina Faso. I had a foot in the door, and I wanted to go much farther, so I did. My observations went hand in hand with philosophical reflections about society, with a spiritual quest and with a practical approach. Thus were born the three poles upon which I wanted to act and bear witness.
Q: So you left for Burkina Faso in the 1980s to share the principles and techniques of agro-biology and to experiment with your discoveries in another part of the world.
PR: I found myself in a very particular context, in the Sahel, where the people were mostly farmers. They had been living off the land for ages, even though they had not always done so wisely. For example, at one point they had started deforestation, but they had survived. Then, since they represented an important workforce, the farmers were mobilized to grow export goods and bring foreign money into the country. They had to use fertilizers and pesticides, which they were obliged to buy. As in many other places, they could no longer produce food to feed themselves and had to buy food for their families with what they managed to earn. As a result, they were deep in debt and the system led to a complete degradation of their living conditions. Actually, I blame these things for having contributed to the great Sahel famines.
So, we opened an agro-ecological center, which gave birth to a group who disseminated our agricultural methods all around the country and in other parts of Africa. Today, many people in Burkina Faso are involved in eco-agriculture. Clearly, even when the land is poor, it can still feed us sufficiently and qualitatively, provided we respect it.
Q: You have inspired so many people through your commitment, through the lectures you have given and the books you have written! Who are your own thought leaders, the people who inspire you?
PR: I have read quite a lot, as I mentioned already. I had my Catholic phase, then a Muslim one, and progressively a spiritual one, devoid of any church or religion. That is the one I am still in. All through the course of my life, the person who has inspired me most is Socrates. When he said that he knew nothing, he spoke the truth. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. What do we really know? Very little, I am afraid.
Then I went through a very complex phase in my life: I did not feel clear about things and felt miserable, even though we had just succeeded in our back-to-the-land operation, and even though our children were feeling well. We had all the so-called trappings of happiness. In such moments, one can feel and live a strange intimate experience, which may be related to our past or whatever. Anyway, I was not well at all, and I was looking for a way out.
Then I discovered Krishnamurti and things began to change. He would not teach lessons, or teach how to think. He had that Socratic approach that made me realize that I had been trying to understand myself through the environment and through other people, whereas I needed to understand my inner self. Such an approach had a salutary effect on me because I could not resort to any religion or philosophy of any sort. Through Krishnamurti, I was confined to that sort of solitude that triggered in me, beyond mere thinking, a way to analyze myself, to understand myself and to find out all by myself. Then, I only needed a kind hand. So I went back to the Socratic approach and I said to myself: “Rely on nobody but yourself. ”
So I entered a mode of investigation related to direct feeling and thinking, to experience. Then I understood that I need not rely on anyone else’s thought, and that I’d rather take into account the clear thinking I was endowed with, a thinking that was not within me but that had been and would be given to me, as long as I stopped looking for solutions. I just had to listen to myself, pay attention to the way I was evolving, the way I reacted, and the reasons why I was jealous, why this, and why that. It was an initiation of my self by my self. That really helped me fare better, in a very strong and powerful manner. I recovered all the energy I needed to pursue my journey on earth and on the land in the way it had been envisioned.
Q: So since you discovered Krishnamurti, have you resorted to that inner voice in order to be guided in whatever you do, in all your choices?
PR: Absolutely. I make sure I am following the right path. We are all on the right path, but we have to make sure of it. For that, we can ask ourselves: “Will it harm others if I do that? Is it merely conforming ? Am I being influenced by preconceived ideas ? Am I attached to dogma, to anything?” Once you have no attachment to anything, then you are really connected ; you are not attached but connected, open to the Absolute. Regarding the Absolute, it makes me think of the quote of Meister Eckhart: “Stop talking about God. All you will say about Him is nothing but lies.”
Q: And what happens when you are no longer attached to anything ?
PR: The last question to ask yourself then is whether your imagination was at work, trying to reassure and comfort you, or whether it was silence that let you know, a silence that can say so much more than any word you hear! It is a silence in which, at long last, something can be expressed, something that does not come from torments, or from a quest for Truth that was far too intense. Being silent does not mean you have to be lost in the desert. In the desert, there is a particular silence, the absence of noise, that silence that makes you say that you are no longer within your self. You are lost in the very center of the desert. Maybe. But that is not the silence I mean. I am talking about the silence you can hear when you are in the middle of a crowd. There is no need to be in an empty environment to hear that silence. And it is a very ‘active’ silence, which doesn’t come just by magic, because it requires you to be present.
Q: Being connected to that inner silence is important indeed. But how can we do that?
PR: Well, do you expect someone will give you a recipe just to be applied? Today’s recipes are more like relaxation than like silence. When you are very relaxed, you may think you are bathing in silence, but true silence is different. Its nature is transcendent. You have to open yourself to it. It is like the air you breathe. The air is there, and you breathe it. It is like love – the love you experience and the love you live. In all these deeds you are by yourself, completely alone, isolated, but without actually being so. When you want to be isolated you are really connected; on the contrary, the more you want to be connected the more isolated you feel. This silence is of a very peculiar nature. Speaking about it is no easy matter.
Q: You have just evoked love. You often talk about the strong energy there is in love, which is like an engine that will help you change and change things around you.
PR: That’s right, but the word ‘love’ strikes a particular chord, which is open to different interpretations and fantasies. Love is, in fact, transcendent by essence. I think human beings are tailor-made for it. Love means loving trees, loving the earth, the fish, loving, loving and loving again; it’s all about love.
Then there is also particular love, more intense, like the one you feel for your companion, for your children, for your dearest ones, the love between a man and a woman, the sort that ‘I’ will see and live as a great celebration! But love is not only that. When you love a tree, it is not personalized. It is like an essence, a transcendent reality to which you connect yourself. That is the reason why unconditional love can never ignite dissent. It is not its role; it is not in its essence.
I think that love is rich with multiple tones and intensities. There is a first circle, the circle of the human love we feel for our loved ones. Then, there is a second circle, and a third one… until we reach the love that embraces everything and everyone.
To be continued.
Interview by SYLVIE BERTI ROSSI
May 31, 2019
April 28, 2019
April 02, 2019