Ubuntu – “if I diminish you, I diminish myself”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu refers to the african concept of humanity – Ubuntu – in an introduction to a small book containing the words that inspired Gandhi.

Ubuntu is the spiritual essence of humanity and the archbishop defines it in two parts:  the first is compassion, the second part openness.  This simplification is mine, the Archbishop spends more time highlighting examples of ubuntu; caring for those weaker than yourself, living without fear of other human beings and with a generosity that allows you to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

The book itself contains a large number of quotes from Gandhi, both from his time as a lawyer in colonial South Africa, and later as leader of the Indian satyagraha consciousness movement.

Desmond Tutu’s take on ubuntu is one that transcends his Christianity and is applicable across all religions and philosophies – the points he makes in defining Ubuntu are:

humanity is not be achieved by an isolated individual, but always in relationship to others – understood by western science through social psychology and social cognition.  Gandhi’s quote “I am what I am because of who we all are” expresses this perfectly.

the qualities expressed by ubuntu are, first and foremost formed by an acknowledgement of a oneness of spirit or energy – understood in relationship to modern civilisation as the shared social space of culture AND/OR the shared spiritual space of religion.

with this acknowledgement of a shared spiritual state comes a responsibility to maintain (and create wherever it is required) harmony in this shared socio-energetic space

the way to go about producing this harmony is through this mutually beneficial quality known by southern African culture as ubuntu, and by western culture as ???

The question marks are my personal evaluation of the modern civilisation we find ourselves in.  We often know how we should act to achieve a harmonious state – and see examples of it all around if we observe closely – those who give their time and energy out of a love of doing good for others, people who are able to offer comfort or heal pain and suffering simply by being around, listening, touching.

Yet sometimes we don’t know how to act to achieve unity of spirit.  We may not have role-models to base our experience on, we may simply choose what initially appears to be an easier way out – blocking out others, isolating ourselves from a problem through fear of reprisal or judgment.  If we choose to create social disorder rather than harmony, we deny ourselves – and often others – of ubuntu.  This can be seen again and again in observing social history, and conquering the cycle of oppression and fear is only truly done with the quality of ubuntu.  This has been famously personified in the twentieth century by people such as Mandela, Gandhi, close to the heart of the man who gives us the definition in the title of this article.  It is also personified in small actions all around us if we look closely or take our ubuntu with us when we venture outside.

Sometimes we might fall short of achieving ubuntu in our actions.  The ancient Hindu philosophy of ‘adwaita‘ (meaning “there is only one”, or literally in Sanskrit “not two”) contains the seed of ubuntu.    Ignorance is the fallacy that our destiny and wellbeing is neatly packaged in separate boxes.  Truth is that we are connected.  We share pain and sorrow.  Standing up for truth can sometimes feel lonely and unusual but also empowering and rewarding.

“The straight path is as difficult as it is simple.  Were it not so, all would follow the straight path.  Do not crave to know the views of others, nor base your intent thereon.  To think independently for oneself is a sign of fearlessness.”

with metta…  om shanti.

Todays blog was written by Breathe London founders Tom TeWhaiti and Andy Roberts


Gandhi, M., Tutu, D. (2007)  Peace: The Words and Inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi.  Blue Mountain Arts, Inc.


Posted on November 23, 2011, in positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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