Speculative non-buddhism poses a simple question: shorn of its transcendental excess–its adventitious conceptual representations–what might x-buddhism offer us? That question suggests a methodology. It starts by deflating the lofty doctrinal postulates, hovering above our heads like the Hindenburg, and watching them come crashing down. As they lie there, prostrate on the ground, we can have a closer, less doctrinally-determinate, look.
In the present post, Matthias Steingass continues a lively discussion about the prospects of raw, doctrinally-shorn, x-buddhistic materials for practice. This discussion started with the post and comments (particularly those by Tom, Robert, and Erick) on “Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology, and Nihilism,” continued with Matthias’s article “Meditation and Control,” and has since arisen on the comments of virtually every post here, regardless of the post’s topic.
Although he does not cast it explicitly in such terms, Matthias’s piece is, in my eyes, an example of what we can do with non-buddhism. Maybe it is fairer, and in fact more to the point, to say it is an example simply of what we can do with thinking–thinking being what happens when we drain from cognition the charism surging in from the x-buddhist power grid.
I hope the reader will pay especially close attention to the programmatic remarks Matthias makes toward the end of the essay. There is something concrete there that we can build on, something promising that we can explore in action. (Glenn Wallis)
No More Meditation!
There is a lot. Calm, the coming and going of explicit thought, feeling, sensation, mixtures of this and its phasing in and out of syntactically correct renderings, spots of non-thought presence, the wandering of the focus of attention, physical effects, effects which might be reflected in behaviour, insights, ideas, dullness… but no meditation.
Let’s turn the thing around. No introduction to “meditation” but search for experiences which might point to or are certain specific properties of being conscious. There are experiences which one can describe. It is not from semantic content to experience but vice versa. The point is, one has to find a way to describe experience in a fresh way. Talking about “mindfulness” is not talking about mindfulness: it is talking about something one has learned to say about mindfulness in a series of expensive seminars. The other thing is not learned but is a given – and it is for free, which, in our economic culture, means it has no value. What is the point to know that I am right now? That is at once a trivial and at the same time very important question. This is nothing mystical; it is present experience – for which one can find expressions. Interactional expression is the creative scribe which maps out and structures – with all the colourful complicating reciprocity that this brings with it.
But let us abandon the word and then look for experience as not looked for but experienced – and just let’s say “No!” to “meditation.”
A big step forward would be to stay with the development of meaning in interaction as it unfolds from the hither and thither of conversation on all levels of talk, gesture, movement, expression and so on. But at first the observation must be trained because the intricacy from which all those social gestures arise is normally not observed. In this sense there is a training of being with or in or as the stream of consciousness, of experiencing this facticity of bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, rushes of emotion, fatigue, daydreaming or knowing the difference of the latter from presence as such.
Maybe there are some preliminaries or auxiliaries like attention to breath or looking toward the corner of the room where the dog sleeps. But this is no end in itself. The importance lies, I think, in the skills which could be developed from there. Social skills which are able to go with the ongoing generation of meaning in interaction. Maybe some techniques like the Bohm-dialogue or Ruth Cohnʻs Theme-Centred Interaction or Gendlinʻs Focusing help to facilitate and develop this. With the development of this skills would come the widening of the possibilities of the interacting group and the downing of ideological thinking which loses its grip as it becomes clearer how it arises from contingent sources. In this sense a simple technique like calm abiding could be part of a wider spectrum of developmental practices.
But “meditation” is no longer an option.
It is not important, from the point of view of interaction, whether there is some sort of pure awareness, whether this is a phenomenal primitive or pure apperception. From the point of a somebody in an experience of non-thought the question is just another thought, and non-thought might be just another form of thought – which might be presence as such, grounded in neurochemical subsystems of intricately contingent being. What matters more, in the context of interaction, sociality, being with others, is that from here the contingency and construction of individual thought, feeling, (re)acting and so on and hence individuality, could be seen better – what then could be of further use to push being in a direction of more enhancing, life-supporting, non-violent social spheres.
Of course it is interesting to see how far one can go into the microstructure of one’s own consciousness. The dissolution of a thought, a gap, the bubble from which a new one arises, the holding of presence, the slaying of discursiveness to the point where it begins to look like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, sound-waves filling space with pink and yellow turmoil, vanishing only to leave the shimmering edges of presence where no-one knows what the real is and where a relaxed insignificance in full light of nature’s indifference abides.
But from there the question has to be solved how to interact being indifferent and resonating at the same time – annihilation is certain but mirror-neurons still fire. Modern buddhist ideology is of no help here. When the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011 a buddhist e-mail arrived calling for reciting mantras for the suffering people! The question about any intra-conscious praxis is how it affects inter-conscious praxis.
There is another aspect of a training of consciousness for more self-awareness, for more cognizance of the particles of self. Apart from the questions of decision, pure awareness, phenomenal primitives, etc., there are on the level of interaction and sociality forces which enforce a commodification of awareness itself: the time of consciousness is synchronized with time objects of the culture industries. The individual consciousness is linked and fed realtime with the steady input from a normalizing power. This transforms and reduces the person to an irresponsible junky whom, if the stream is cut off, is rendered helpless. Helpless because this stream is not simply a channel, for example, for advertising but a steady stream of infusion of standards which in a subtle way guide the individual, making it feeling free, but in the last instance controlling it by preventing every form of individuation. It is an autopoietic structure creating for its self-stabilization, among other things, the impression that the outside of it is uninhabitable or even unthinkable while the inside is nirvana. Hence the happiness-hypothesis of the Dalai Lama. Opting out is no option, therefore in buddhism one always has to cultivate something – even awareness itself (buy it at Sogyalʻs rigpa-shop!).
There has to be a training of weaning off from this infusion with the additional problem that it cannot be the cultivation of something new because “something new” is always a generation of more content from the normalizing power. A “laying bare,” might describe the undoing of this. But one sees the problem when buddhists prefer the colourful non-non-thetic tantric stuff, the elaborated rituals of zen or a happening with the Dalai Lama in one of those gigantic circuses with noisy legions of true believers instead of being for a few moments with whatever is… in the kitchen, on a busy sidewalk, on a plane, in a park with the distant sound of playing children, a whiff of flowery fragrance and shimmering reflections of the water behind the trees, “basking in the sunshine of a bygone afternoon, all around me golden sun flakes” – but of course, this is pretentious kitsch, and the question is how to distinguish kitsch from experience in a time where sometimes it seems more honest to be a straightforward junky than a fuzzily maneuvering meditational infected non-empty empty entity.
Along with any training in, for example, calm abiding as an antidote to the infusion of the culture industries – which is the destruction of attention – there has to be, in my opinion, a cultivation of knowledge about the construction of knowledge. Calm abiding or whatever praxis could be a catalyst for opting out but not if it is not accompanied by studies of some kind which foster an understanding of historicity on the macro level, on the microlevel the weaving of the ubiquitous manipulation of reality in everyday life without looking for a real beyond and on the level of personality the uncertainty of memory which can lead to insight into the illusory status of the steadiness of self.
In any case, the weaning off from the infusion is also a political affair, as it should reinstate individual responsibility, which, in politics as in buddhism with it’s lamas and roshis and whatever, is eroded up to the point where acting as an infantile shmoo is à la mode.
The situational awareness which comes with responsibility – which might have to do something with the mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva – both being not two entities but qualities which are non-existent when separated, might lay the ground for a space in which talk about “meditation” can finally develop. And at the same time, simply the attempt to talk in an honest, sincere and non-violent way helps to further the mentioned qualities.
I think all this is a level which is at certain points open to a much wider perspective. But first it is about creating an environment in which a conversation can take place. In western buddhism there is mostly no conversation. Talk comes from the guy in front which is invested with the necessary paraphernalia to talk in a one-way monological manner. But this is only to preserve the status quo, to reestablish a hierarchy which in the west went missing in action during the last 50 or 100 years when the societies of discipline developed to the societies of control.
Conversation would mean to establish peer-groups which resemble our hierarchically flat social landscape, in which none the less knowledge is unevenly dispersed, to provide room for the (development of forms for the) exchange of portrayals of experience. Therewith certain laws should govern this exchange. For example “truth is the death of communication” or “all memory is fiction and, more specific, “there is no secret hierophantic knowledge told only to the true believers” and: every attempt to express experience is totally free in the confines of “this is what I make of it,” while at the same time the spontaneous affective all-knowing critic takes a backseat and shuts up. There are many models to establish an environment which facilitates an open and creative atmosphere for conversation about or better “in” experience. But, sadly, buddhism, perhaps, even less than other religious undertakings, seems to be one of the domains where this aspect of an open society is strongly prohibited.
Matthias Steingass is the founder of the German-English language blog Der Unbuddhist. Matthias studied math and economics. He has worked in the financial markets for the past seventeen years. Matthias has also worked as a musician (bass and sampling). In addition to his career, Matthias is currently pursuing his interests in philosophy while at the same time pursing music again, this time as a songwriter.
Matthias can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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