Traumatized by Toast

A Review of The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, M.D.images-2

These days everyone is traumatized.

And stressed.  And unable to pay attention.  We conceive of ourselves as subjects under siege, struggling to concentrate in a world that bombards us with violent excessive stimuli; the result, we are supposed to believe, is that our originally unified consciousness, our true self, is fractured, disabled, and suffering.

The discipline of psychology, and particularly the practice of psychotherapy, has always functioned as what Foucault calls a “technology of the self,” working to produce subjects always already in need of professional intervention, subjects who can be taught to discipline themselves into productive and uncritical members of the capitalist economy.  The addition of ADD and PTSD to the DSM-III in 1980 worked to institutionalize a particular kind of subject of late capitalism, and the newly released DSM-V, with its addition of a new category of “Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders,” has made an advance in pathologizing any dissatisfaction with the existing social formation.

Buddhism has not been slow to jump on this bandwagon, and has refashioned itself to be an effective producer of this new ideology of the subject.  Dukkha has become “stress,” attention deficits can be remedied with “mindfulness,” and now we discover that Buddhism always was really nothing but a form of trauma therapy, enlightenment merely a successful cure for the “traumas of everyday life.”

When I saw the title of Mark Epstein’s new book, I was at first appalled.  But then I considered that this might be an opportunity to investigate exactly what ideology of the subject mainstream Buddhism and psychotherapy are cooperating to produce.  As it turns out, the ideology of the subject being produced is a new-age take on the Rousseauian Romantic subject, perfectly fashioned to make the affluent more satisfied with their lives and discourage real thought or social engagement.  The only real surprise is that the subject of late-capitalism turns out to be not much different from the subject of early capitalism.

I want to reiterate here what I have so often said about my use of the term ideology.  An ideology is not an error or false belief (although it may, and in this case does, make use of errors and false belief).  Ideology is a collection of beliefs in practices which construct the role individuals play in reproducing the existing relations of production.  Ideologies are practices functioning to make it seem enjoyable and natural to fulfill our role in the social system.  Things like meditation and psychotherapy are social practices which serve this purpose.   The question is, what role in the reproduction of the relations of production do they serve to make pleasurable and to naturalize?

In the case of Epstein’s version of Buddhist-influenced psychotherapy, it would probably be easy enough to tell what particular class position his ideology serves to produce if we could just get a list of the occupations of all of his clients, readers, and devotees.  But, since this is not possible, we can always uncover the ideological function by simply reading his work.  I will adumbrate my conclusions briefly here:  Epstein’s work functions to reproduce the “professional” subject, living off the excess of capitalist production while functioning to administer the transfer of capitalist wealth from those who produce it to those who appropriate it.  These are usually people who believe they have a morally correct livelihood, that what they do is far removed from the sordid taint of crass commercial exploitation.  They are the lower stratum of the ruling class, and believe what they do is natural, necessary, and that they work hard to earn their comfortable lifestyles.   Their need to remain ignorant of the exploitation and suffering that supplies their relative wealth, to remain ignorant, in fact, of what role they actually play in the social formation, requires that they remain poor or superficial thinkers, working in meaningless jobs, alienated and enervated and turning to “spirituality” or emotional relationships for fulfillment.  Epstein’s pseudo-Buddhist trauma therapy is just the newest practice in which they can find some kind of distracting activity to keep them working, and to ensure that they do what they must, that they “work all by themselves,” without ever really knowing what it is they are doing.

To clarify this, let’s consider the Hegelian master-slave dialectic.  As part of the collective “master” subject, the professional upper-middle class enjoys the fruits of collective human labour, while making relatively little effort.  However, in his pure enjoyment of material comforts, he becomes a peculiar kind of subject.  All his pleasures must be passive, sensory, and fleeting, and intellectual activity must be unpleasant, tedious, rote “work,” because his position in society is produced by his removal from manual labor, and by his insistence that things are as they naturally must be.  Any attempt at thought would expose his illusion.  Compare the position of the laboring “slave” in the dialectic, as described by Peter Singer:

The slave works on the external world.  In contrast to his master, who receives the temporary satisfactions of consumption, the slave shapes and fashions the material objects on which he works.  In doing so he makes his own ideas into something permanent, and external object.  (For example, if he carves a log of wood into a chair, his conception of a chair, his design and efforts, remain a part of the world.)  Through this process the slave becomes more aware of his own consciousness, for he sees it in front of him as something objective.  In labour, even labour under the direction of another, hostile, mind, the slave discovers that he has a mind of his own. (179-180)

The master, on the other hand, remains unsatisfied, alienated, in delusion, and must struggle to “become pure, and to do this it must show that it is not attached to mere material objects” (178).  In reality, it “is doubly attached to material objects: it is attached to its own living body, and to the living body of the other person from whom it requires acknowledgement” (178) and from whom it acquires its own material needs and desires.  The goal of “spiritual” activity, then, and of Western Buddhism and the therapy of the unhappily affluent, is to provide a practice in which they can believe themselves to be free of material conditions, detached, and true to a timeless self uncreated by social systems.  That is, spiritual practices produce the delusion that the master needs to be content.

This subject, in order to happily fulfill its tasks of mindlessly administering the appropriation of social surplus value, creates an image of itself as pure and transcendent and inherently good, just as Rousseau and the Romantics did during the beginning stages of the capitalist mode of production.  Just as Rousseau convinced himself that he was a pure and inherently good soul trapped in a fallen and corrupt world, the subject of late-capitalism attempts to convince itself that it is a good and transcendent “true self” trapped in a body and world that is alien to it, that hampers its attempts at happiness and goodness.  Thus, for instance, we can be prevented from “paying attention” by an inadequate brain, but this is no reflection on our core, true self.  We merely need techniques by which this core consciousness can master and overcome its faulty bodily host.

This pure self can take pleasure only in passive, temporary, and sensory stimuli.  Thinking, because it is part of what the brain does (it is not an act of the soul, which can only feel), is part of the problem, and to be avoided.  Effort, bodily or mental, is always unpleasant.  Change cannot be enjoyable, because it is part of the material, impermanent world, and only the eternal world of the soul gives true pleasure.  Emotions are the only part of this true self that we can experience in this world, and they are not to be understood as socially constructed, but as expressions of the soul.  The soul is fractured, traumatized, by the inadequacy of this world, and to restore true happiness we must only stop thought, feel deeply, and passively live in intense states of bliss.  We can’t achieve this all the time, so pursuing it in therapy, in mindfulness, in meditation, becomes the practice that can keep us deluded, ignorant, and powerfully attached to the material world while we believe we are serenely detached.

Now, clearly, nobody puts it this explicitly.  The “soul” is usually denied, hidden by rhetorical sleight-of hand or sophistry.  But this Romantic-era assumption of a pure transcendent soul trapped in a fallen corrupt world structures most, perhaps all, of American psychology and Western Buddhism.  The belief in a core, unified, transcended “self” that freely chooses to attend, that can be “stressed” and “traumatized” and “fragmented,” is the implicit ideology of the subject underlying both the DSM (III through V) and Western Buddhism.

By way of illustration, then, I want to consider Mark Epstein’s combination of Buddhism and therapy in his newest book The Trauma of Everyday Life.  By critiquing the assumptions about the subject underlying the kind of practice he suggests, we can see how he works to produce delusion, attachment and aversion, and call it enlightenment.  And we can see how he produces an ideology perfectly suited to keep the alienated professionals at the lower strata of the capitalist (master) subject working, in Althusser’s phrase, “all by themselves,” happily convinced that their actions are natural, necessary, good, and not at all in the service of horrid exploitation and oppression.  And anyway, even if they were to notice this, it wouldn’t matter—because like Rousseau claimed, what is really important is the good intentions of the pure soul.

Epstein’s claim is simple, and not really different from all his previous books except in the emphasis on the term “trauma.”  The goal of therapy, as he sees it, is the same as the goal of Buddhism.  Both seek to help us to stop thinking, and to learn to feel, deeply and intensely, emotions that we supposedly have, that exist, like some kind of bodiless substance, but of which our “mind” (which is completely separate from our “thoughts”) remains unaware.  We somehow “have” these emotions, but don’t know we have them, and therapy seeks to avoid understanding, and revel in unexamined emotion, allowing us to feel these repressed emotions, because that will make the “fractured” mind whole once again.  The mind seems to be made up of a swarm of emotions, and trauma “fractures” it, leaving one part of the original whole mind floating in some frozen limbo. Reclaiming this lost emotion is how we achieve states of blissful happiness.

The goal of therapy, for Epstein, was always “to help [his] patients find and achieve the kind of love and intimacy they wanted and deserved”(1).   It is only recently, however, that he has come to realize that they fail to achieve this emotional happiness because they have failed to fully feel some traumatic emotion.  As Epstein explains human maturation, we are born as a pure and innocent mind, and it is the obligation of the mother to create the illusion, the mistaken impression, in the child that “he was the center of the world.”  This is, he says, “her first major task as a mother” (43), and once the child is deluded in this way, the mother should begin “gradually easing her child into ‘disillusionment’”(43).  The goal, he tells us, is to convince the child of what Lacan calls “imaginary plenitude,” a state in which the child is the center of the world, of everyone’s complete interest and intention, and its every need and desire is instantly filled without any effort.  Epstein never questions why it would be important to create this illusion.  It functions, however, to structure the entire rest of our lives.  We then seek forever to approach this state of infantile bliss we never actually had, and are “traumatized” by the dissatisfaction of our lives.

One can see that this idea of the infant state, this ideology of infancy, fits quite well with the position of the master in the master-slave dialectic.  The ruling class wants their children to believe they once had the state of pure autonomy combined with complete recognition which the master seeks but can never quite attain.

For Epstein, “failure to be made sufficiently secure in the illusion of their centrality”(46) is the first cause of our suffering.  Then, because we are rarely “disillusioned” as smoothly and gradually as Epstein suggests is the ideal, everything that we experience can become traumatic, and when that happens “the mind’s primary defense”(73) against the shocks of failed illusions is “dissociation,” burying the “emotion,” which, assumed to be a real thing (we have feelings we do not feel—they seem to have material reality, like a shirt I never wear) continue to force us to suffer and act in ways we cannot explain.  “Mind” serves, in this book, as Epstein’s place-holder for the concept of soul or transcendent self or substrate-consciousness or atman.  What we achieve, when we learn to openly feel these forgotten emotions—not think about them, never analyze their social constructedness, never try to explain what thought this emotion functions to prevent us from having clearly—to just feel the traumatic emotions, we will be reunified, whole and cured, able to achieve emotional intimacy and moments of pure bliss.  “Buddha,” Epstein tells us, “found a way of resting the mind in its true relational nature”(182).  This “true relational nature,” what he calls “implicit relational knowing,” is the illusion that our emotions are eternal and true.  Emotions, Epstein suggests, are shared in a kind of empathic psychic state he repeatedly calls “attunement” or “resonating,” and therapy seeks to convince us to share in this absurd delusion, and to keep us from understanding that emotions are really the product of socially produced discourses.  Emotions, as Spinoza, and Freud, knew, are just thoughts that remain unclear; Epstein’s suggestion is that the goal of Buddhism, the achievement of enlightenment, is the same as the goal of psychotherapy: to interpellate individuals into a particular ideology while keeping them ignorant of both the social function of that ideology and the very fact that it is an ideology.

Thought, in this ideological practice, is always a bad thing.  While Epstein repeatedly insists that we must “investigate” our emotions, investigation means only feeling emotions we haven’t felt before.  It never means understanding.  Insight is always useless. One must seek “inner peace, the place beyond thought, the reservoir of contentment”(131), and this is found by realizing that “this world” is “my mind…its thoughts notwithstanding”(132).  If we can only let our thoughts happen, as part of this samsara world, and remain unattached or indifferent to them, our “true mind” can live in pure emotion, and be happy.

The practice of “mindfulness,” of course, is key to achieving this.  But Epstein is troubled by the fact that “the word the Buddha chose for mindfulness” was “sati” which “means ‘to remember’(148).  He is sure that Buddha must have meant what we today mean by mindfulness, but since he didn’t have this word, he chose an unfortunate term.  It is not possible that Buddha actually meant sati, that he meant that the goal was to recall all the causes and conditions of a phenomenon.  He must have meant the exact opposite of what he says—he just chose the wrong word!  Or, perhaps, Epstein tells us, what Buddha meant was that we must remember our traumatic experiences.  We must “allow the experiences of trauma to come out of their frozen states and back into the warmth of time” (149).

There are few examples of what these everyday traumas would be, but let’s take a look at one, just to clarify the ideology of the subject this book is producing.  One of the examples of such a trauma involves Epstein’s own experience eating a piece of toast.  The toast was “gluten free and made from chickpea flour,” and when the “remnants…turned to cardboard in [his] mouth” he let his mind wander to other things while he continued eating.  Then, noticing his toast was gone, that he had eaten it while thinking about doing his laundry, he finds himself “staring into a big, empty, devouring hole where [his] toast, and [his] life, used to be” (105).  The trauma of not fully enjoying one’s morning toast is compared to the experience of Buddha’s disciple Yasa:

He had seen the dark side of his female attendants and I had witnessed the disappearance of my toast.  The yawning jaws of death were all around me and I had a choice.  I could panic or I could return to my mindfulness.  I decided to go for a walk. (105)

While on this walk, thinking about the “trauma of the morning”(130), he comes to the realization that he must “make room for” the inevitability of thought, allow it to happen passively, so that he can achieve what he considers the true experience of anatman: “I had a glimmer of another way of looking at it all.  No-self was not a state to be achieved, it was a testament to my embedded nature.  No self apart from the world” (133).  His realization is that no-self means that we do have an eternal “true” self, one that is permanent and unchanging because it is a part of the eternal world that is (he quotes Albert Hofmann here) “pure energy and colorless substance” (132).  That is, his traumatic toast experience teaches him to stop thinking, and to realize that he is part of the eternal atman.  Unable to tolerate the possibility that Buddha really meant that there is no eternal self or soul, Epstein simply decides to ignore this core teaching of Buddhism, and to redefine anatman to mean exactly what the Vedantic term atman means.

To convince us that this ideology of the late-capitalist subject is timeless, universal, Epstein tells us that it is the great discovery of Buddha, who was, he tells us, the world’s first trauma therapist.  He retells the familiar myth of the Buddha, of his mother’s death a week after he was born, of the three palaces, his splendid isolation, his abrupt disenchantment on seeing sickness, old age, and death.  But Epstein seems completely convinced that this myth, which he acknowledges was written several hundred years after the death to the historical Buddha, was literally true.  Buddha’s six years of spiritual seeking was a “reenactment” of the repressed trauma of the loss of his mother, and his enlightenment comes with his ability to stop thinking or making effort, and the realization that the “actual nature of life is bliss”(79).  It is once Buddha realizes that attempts to understand the causes of things in the material world are futile, once he abandons any “egocentric” attempt to engage with the world at all, that he realizes that “the thrill of bliss can be sustained in a human body…once this bliss is understood as an expression of the compassionate connection that binds us all the way a mother is naturally connected to her baby”(79).  We need only accept the state of infantile imaginary plenitude as our ideal, and we will be content.  Epstein combines this retelling of the Buddha myth with the language of object relations theory, to produce the idea of a kind of emotional atman, a mystical energy combining all beings, which he repeatedly describes in the vague metaphors of “attumenent” and “responsiveness” (38), in which even pain becomes bliss when transmitted and shared within this mystical psychic network.

It might be interesting to examine this mythical narrative as a reactionary attempt to contain the dangerous truth of Buddhist thought.  But Epstein is more interested in participating in that containment, determined that Buddhism must not be suggesting that we really are impermanent, that it must not really be asking us to think, to understand the true nature of reality—he desperately wants a Buddhism that offers comfort in passive pleasure and willful ignorance, so he invents one, partly by simply rewriting the concept of anatman, which he seems completely unable to grasp.  If anatman means that we have no “true” or eternal self, that we are nothing but the production of the habits, actions, discourses, and social practices in which we participate, well, that hardly offers much solace to the unhappy affluent.  If emotions are not some unearthly substance, floating out there unfelt and demanding our attention, then there isn’t much value in creating stories of some ideal state of delusory infancy only to make people feel miserable about never having had it.  Certainly, we can produce these feelings of “repressed traumas,” but we need to keep in mind that they are feeling we are producing right now, in our current practices, not ghostly feelings out there waiting to be “unfrozen.”  A correct understanding of Buddhist thought would demand a thoroughly different kind of therapeutic practice—perhaps one which recognizes “trauma” as the aporia or lack in our existing symbolic system, instead of understanding it positivistically  as an experience that must in itself somehow be traumatic, and the effects of which float endlessly in a spirit world waiting to be laid to rest, like ghosts in bad horror novel.

The ideological project of Epstein’s book (I would say of all his books) also demands a refusal to understand psychoanalysis.  Epstein seems to have little knowledge of Freud  beyond the popular misrepresentations one can find in any undergraduate psychology textbook.  He explains Freud’s idea of “evenly suspended attention” as “don’t bother about keeping anything in mind” (81), when in fact Freud means the opposite—the analyst should keep everything in mind; Epstein misrepresents Freud as suggesting a kind of thought-free “attunement” with the patient’s emotions, like what Rogers suggests.  He understands the unconscious to be what we don’t remember, a positive “repressed” content, while for Freud it is clear that the dynamic unconscious is primarily a lack, what we cannot think within the discourses that construct our minds.  He repeatedly asserts that Freud claims we could be cured by recalling our early experiences, when in fact Freud is very explicit that this is neither possible nor desirable; our earliest memories are never correct, but this does not matter for Freud because what they tell us about is the structure of our current thought, the “unconscious” gap in our present symbolic system.  Epstein also frequently repeats the old saw about Freud claiming that analysis only turns misery into ordinary unhappiness, despite the fact that this grossly misrepresents the intent with which this statement is (almost) made.  When one of Epstein’s patients suggests that her extreme anxiety before her approaching marriage is a result of the trauma of her mother’s suicide when she was four, Epstein simply accepts this shockingly naïve explanation, and uses it as one more attempt to dismiss the value of psychoanalytic insight and to insist that the patient simply needs to “face emotions” she failed to feel in the past.  Any psychoanalyst would surely see that this explanation of the anxiety is mere rationalization, and that sitting around “feeling pain” is no way to help someone; what she needs is to come to an understanding of the real cause of her anxiety.  As Freud learned from Spinoza, there is no emotion that is disproportionate to its cause—we are merely often wrong about the true cause of the emotion, which is always in the present.

Why the refusal to even consider the real thought of psychoanalysis?  Why the absolute rejection of the Buddhist concepts of anatman and sati?  I would suggest it is because both of these discourses seek to critique and explain our ideologies, and they tend to leave us with motivation to make some real change in the social formation in which we live.  An ideology suited to the administrative and professional members of the capitalist class (those such as stockbrokers, accountants, corporate management, as well as the ideological professionals like teachers, psychologists, writers) could not permit such critique, or such motivations.  If we were to understand, with Spinoza, that emotions are not timeless expressions of our soul, but are thoughts we are not quite clear about, this might lead to actually understanding how our cultural institutions produce our unhappiness.  Instead, Epstein’s project is to produce an ideology that reinforces ignorance and delusion, and teaches those who participate in it to take pleasure even in their emotional misery, as it reassures them of the depth and purity of their eternal soul.

This is not to say it won’t work.  Consider the anxiety of the engaged woman Epstein mentions.  She believes that she is anxious because her husband might “disappear as precipitously as her mother did”(206), but this supposed insight gives her no relief.  Now, purely hypothetically, suppose that the real source of her anxiety is that she has the typical Western belief that the most important component of human happiness is our romantic and sexual relationships (as Epstein tells us, facilitating this is his goal in therapy).  And suppose that she knows full well that her marriage will not possibly give her this complete happiness, that there is no mystical “attunement” or “resonance” between herself and her future husband—just as there never was between herself and her mother.  Psychoanalysis would seek to lead her to an understanding of the false beliefs, and absurd expectations, organizing her romantic life.  Ultimately, she would have to decide whether or not to marry this man with full understanding that he will not magically give her the sense of imaginary plenitude she has learned to want.  However, Epstein’s approach is the complete opposite.  Assuming that “love” is some mystical otherworldly communication between souls, beyond all human understanding, he reassures her that her anxiety, and thus her lack of complete happiness with her husband, would be caused by forgotten pain which she must now experience.  The failure of her marriage to give her imaginary plenitude is a result of her need to first feel misery, and her very unhappiness, her anxiety, becomes a reassurance that she has found the right soul-mate, the one who can “unfreeze” her repressed trauma.  Obsession with unanalyzed emotion, then, becomes a sort of fetish to keep the subject occupied, a form of emotional entertainment and enjoyment perfectly suited to the subject who doesn’t want to know how ignorant or alienated she is.  She may very well be “happy” as a result of this.  But her happiness requires that she never consider the enormous human suffering and misery that is required to produce the material comforts she enjoys.  In fact, this ideology would insist that such things are mere ephemera, abstractions, not “real, concrete and immediate,” while her emotions are “really real” and so much more important.  Of course, this is exactly to reverse the meanings of ephemeral and real, but isn’t that what Western Buddhism is all about?

In conclusion, I want to ask: why bliss?  Why should this be the goal?  Why not use Spinoza’s term: Joy.  For Spinoza, for Freud (and, I would argue, for Buddha), the goal is not passive pleasure, delusion, and happy ignorance.  Instead, we can take real pleasure in effortful interaction with the world, but only once we are made fully aware of our ideologies as ideologies, and become able to transform them to better fit human needs.  Trauma is not an inevitable truth of human existence.  It is what our ideologies cannot account for.  Don’t bother trying to live fully in the sensory experience of a piece of toast.  Start thinking about why so many people have no breakfast.  Then you can begin to wake up, and maybe you won’t need so much therapy.

Works Cited

Epstein, Mark.  The Trauma of Everyday Life.  New York: Penguin,  2013.

Scruton, R., Singer, P., Janaway, C. & Tanner, M.  German Philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

48 thoughts on “Traumatized by Toast

  1. >>Don’t bother trying to live fully in the sensory experience of a piece of toast. Start thinking about why so many people have no breakfast. Then you can begin to wake up, and maybe you won’t need so much therapy.<<

    So true. And yet, we are so tangled in our thoughts that until we feel the for ourselves that cardboard in our mouths it is easy to believe that cardboard will feed the hungry. I really appreciate this article for all it addresses. We are misguided, I think, in reconstructing the Buddha's putative life to fit our Western psychological models. It does a tremendous disservice to Buddhism and makes psychology a witless chameleon.

    At the same time, not everyone who seeks therapy is narcissistic or part of the capitalist ploy to oppression. Suffering is a reality and their reality is a form of suffering few of us sitting at our computers, in our well-heated or -cooled homes, travelling teaching, writing, taking vacations will ever understand. I try to keep that in the foreground when I sit with them and, while I don't suggest they are actually suffering from the flavour of the DSM month, I do try to explore with them the causes and conditions of their suffering. And we don't talk about gluten-free toast because they likely have not had breakfast that morning.

  2. Believe it or not, I agree with some of what you have asserted. I also disagree with other assertions. But, with all due respect, before I engage in a back and forth about points that I find needing more discussion, I would like to ask you a question. It is an honest question, and the answer will truthful shape any dialogue that I have about this post. I am genuinely interested in the answer. What is your goal with this article?

    I can clearly see well formulated arguments about self, trauma, social structure/engagement, “emotions”, the need for therapy, etc…. And I think that a dialogue about theory versus practice is an important one. But what is your ultimate goal? Is it dialogue and the mutual shaping of each others thought processes? Is it to convince people of the way you see the world? Are you interested in transformational dialogue, or just transactional dialogue?

    I have never quite known your goal here and that has shaped, perhaps wrongly, the way I interact, or choose to not interact, with some of the discussions here.

  3. Genju: I don’t deny that people seeking therapy are actually suffering; and I certainly would deny that anyone seeks therapy as part of a “ploy” to perpetuate capitalist oppression. What I am suggesting is that this perpetuation is what the therapist does, not what the client is seeking. And I would further argue that most, perhaps all, therapists are unaware that they are doing this. They believe that they are restoring people to “natural” and “correct” functioning–psychologists and psychiatrists work hard to exclude real thought from their disciplines, and it would never occur to them that the “properly functioning self” they are trying to restore looks a hell of a lot like the bourgeois-humanist subject of capitalism. They all offer the kind of justification you do–that they are down there working in the trenches with real people, feeling their pain deeply, and they are “helping” concrete individuals–all that “theory” stuff is just nonsense for elitist intellectuals. And so, they are never able to understand this argument: yes, you may succeed in what you call “helping”, but what you call helping is really the promotion of delusion and the perpetuation of oppression!

    April: My goal is simply to remove delusion and error, using critical thought and analysis. I have no hope of convincing someone like Epstein of his error–he is surely far too devoted to his attachment to the transcendent soul to understand such arguments. And I have no hope of convincing anyone who buys the postmodern bullshit about everything being just “the way you see the world”–some “ways of seeing” are right, some are wrong, and if you can’t grasp that, there’s no way to have a discussion. I just write with the assumption that there are some people who are not so thoroughly interpellated into capitalist ideology that truth and cogent argument are beyond their grasp.

  4. Very nice article Tom. I’d like to hear what you have to say about Jungian psychology.

  5. I would also be interested in hearing about the differences between the Lacanian symbolic/imaginary sphere and the Jungian collective unconscious. Thanks for a great post, Tom.

  6. Why Jung? I remember many, many years ago reading an essay about Freud’s response to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. (I would love to be able to recall where this was, if anyone know of the source). Freud supposedly said that he had always been saying that the unconscious was collective; the difference was, Jung believed it was some eternal spirit, and Freud meant that it was collectively produced–in language and culture.

    I know that Zizek mentions that Jung makes the mistake of assuming that (socially produced) human desires and concepts (like gender) are features of the universe–and so produces an idealist ideology of the worst kind. Althusser said something similar, that Jung simply reifies the ideology of 20th-century Europe, and insists that it is not an ideology but the natural and eternal quality of even the non-human universe. This nicely avoids the problem, in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, that once we understand how our ideologies are constructed and what purpose they serve we will be obliged to change them. For Jung, there’s nothing to change, because it is just the way the universe is, eternally, and we need to adapt to it.

    I know psychologists love Jung as much as they hate Freud. The idea that the unconscious is your eternal spirit is much more comforting than the idea that it is the aporia of your symbolic system. And Jungian nonsense lends itself well to all those asinine barnum statements psychologists are so fond of using in their “personality tests”–they can do horoscopes and tarot readings and call it Jungian psychoanalysis.

  7. Very interesting, Tom. I completely agree with you that the notion of recollecting emotions along with the anti-thought fetish as cures to trauma are shallow.

    At the same time — how do we know that social discourses produce suffering entirely independently of the non-social? To take the anxious bride in your essay, perhaps her desire for an imaginary plenitude is doomed to frustration, particularly when she seeks it from a romantic relationship…and perhaps the specific form of that anxiety manifests in a shape specified by contemporary discourse.

    Yet I’m not sure that that means that the sense of that plenitude itself is entirely imaginary, or indeed that there isn’t something rather special about romantic relationships that provokes the current discursive view of them as potentially panacetic.

    I think social discourse ultimately rests in something that is supra-social, and of which any particular discourse, or even all possible discourses added together, are only a view. For that supra-social something, which we attempt — and which we should attempt — to approach and investigate using the manifold tools of thought must be a pure intelligence that moves the social.

    Of course, I’m not a Buddhist. Not exactly. Then again, neither are you :-).

  8. I might be wrong on this, but I think what Epstein is proposing is not only dangerous, but wrong. My experience is that mindfulness does not work. Emotional bliss doesn’t exist. Sitting meditation for me brings on almost immediate nausea (when I used to do it). I was always told by teachers that I had to sit with it and that I was doing deep work. Huh? The idea that these emotions were unclear thoughts that needed examining makes so much more sense and, as a bonus, is quite liberating. The way I understand ‘sitting with’ is as part of the process of clarifying the thought/emotion. Meditation is a way to sit with and refresh in order to examine. Meditation is nothing more than relaxation response anyway. Basic human flesh and blood experience.

    Another liberating experience has been seeing that marriage and love and the seemingly natural emotion involved is socially constructed. Marriage is a hell of a lot easier when you realize it’s work and not some union with a soul mate where love conquers all. The best conversations my wife and I have start out with one of us asking, again, ‘what the hell is this thing we’re doing?’ That being said, I have great affection for my wife! 🙂

  9. Akilesh: Actually, I am a Buddhist. But that’s not really relevant to whether what I say is correct.

    Your belief in a “pure intelligence” is not easy to argue against. Since their can be no evidence for it other than wishing it were so, there can’t really be any argument against it, right?

    As for the argument that “imaginary plenitude” is purely an illusion (and not a very useful one at that), this argument can and has been made at great length. I would not say that anything is anything is discursively produced independently of the “non-social” (what I would call mind-independent reality). Of course social systems are completely dependent on the existence and laws of mind-independent reality. I would just argue that there is no transcendent essence (pure intelligence, prime mover, soul, whatever). Romantic love is a social construct–not all cultures have it, and it is understood and produced differently in those cultures that do have it. There have been quite a few very good books written on this, too (although not very recently, as far as I know–most people who would understand such arguments have taken this as a given for decades now, and “love” is only understood to be universal in psychology and other popular/ideological discourses).

    That said, I’m not claiming that love is not real. It is real in the same way other socially produced things are real.

    As for the existence of a “pure intellect,” well, the best argument for such a thing I have ever read is Aquinas’s argument for the existence of God, and I don’t find that convincing. Setting aside stupid objections to common misconstruals of Aquinas (eg, those of Dawkins), it seems to me that Aquinas is convincing up to a point–but up to that point what he seems to mean by “God” is not so different from the Buddhist concept of sunyata. However, he goes on to attempt to show that his particular ideology is eternally true, and so must come from God–that is, to reify particular ideology, and so deny the existence of ideology. There, his argument is weak–either you just believe it, or you don’t, and if you believe it you will ignore all evidence to the contrary.

    Of course, if there is a transcendent soul, then there probably isn’t anything wrong with what Epstein does, right? All the human suffering this practice helps perpetuate is not important, because those suffering billions will get their reward in the next life.

    Craig: I’ve had the same experience with marriage. My wife and I don’t have any problems with expecting the other to provide any transcendent bliss, and we manage much better than most of the other couples I know.

    I would imagine your experience with meditation would be pretty much what someone who is not among the unhappy affluent would experience if they were ever in therapy with someone using Epstein’s approach. They’d have the same kind of sick feeling at being subtly coerced into the hegemonic ideology. There’s a very nice description of exactly this kind of thing in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, where the character Hal has to go to a “grief therapist” and becomes actually sickened by being forced to try to give this therapist something that is not part of his (rather poorly interpellated) self. This is usually called “resistance,” and the patient is simply blamed for the therapist’s failure–as it is called “ego” and the meditator is blamed for failure of x-buddhist practices to make him into a fully deluded desiring subject.

  10. It is open to comments related to the essay. I will remove comments that stray too far from the topic, or any attempt to prevent serious discussion.

  11. Your belief in a “pure intelligence” is not easy to argue against. Since their can be no evidence for it other than wishing it were so, there can’t really be any argument against it, right?

    Like all metaphysical arguments, the argument for a pure intelligence is premised on it being the most satisfying concept that explains the world. In my view, consciousness is not reducible to the material, and “laws” are not satisfactory explanations of changes in consciousness, for they need someone to execute and apply them. Both of these facts suggest that there is indeed an intelligence that manages these affairs, though we no little more about it than that bare point; indeed, there is very much a barrier to understanding its true nature, since that nature must be beyond perspective, and we, who are defined by our perspectives, would have therefore have to cease to be to see it.

    Romantic love is a social construct–not all cultures have it, and it is understood and produced differently in those cultures that do have it.

    Just about all cultures have it (see Jankowiak and Fischer, “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love,” if you want some evidence), and it’s existed for thousands of years. The idea that romantic love was invented in the middle ages by troubadours is a myth. Romantic love existed in ancient Persia and India and many other cultures.

    That said, I’m not claiming that love is not real. It is real in the same way other socially produced things are real.

    I guess my point, though, is that in your essay you seem to jump from the fact of the sociality of love to the illusoriness of its seeming object, the imaginary plenitude. I don’t think that’s a valid jump.

    Of course, if there is a transcendent soul, then there probably isn’t anything wrong with what Epstein does, right? All the human suffering this practice helps perpetuate is not important, because those suffering billions will get their reward in the next life.

    If there isn’t a transcendent soul, then all the human suffering it perpetuates is only the suffering of transient non-selves and nobodies with no permanent and fundamental connection to each other. Why care?

  12. I don’t find Jankowiak and Fischer at all convincing, and neither do most other people. Their only evidence is, like yours, mere assertion that the enormous evidence against their position MUST be “a myth” since they know love has always existed. Sure, they offer a lot of sophistry and rhetorical sleight of hand, like arguing that since there are signs of “affection” in the past, what we understand by romantic love must be universal, but they’re basically essentialist idiots, and I won’t waste my time enumerating their many mistakes.

    I agree, that the existence of an eternal consciousness is probably “more satisfying” than all the better explanations. But that was my point. Because it is nicer to believe it doesn’t make it so, and there’s no argument against “I just prefer to think so.” You may not want there to be material explanations for consciousness, so will refuse to consider or understand them, but again, that doesn’t prove they don’t exist.

    There’s just no way to convince someone there is no god, though. It’s like trying to convince someone their horoscope is bullshit. No evidence or argument would count for them, and it’s a waste of time.

    As for the supposed “jump” from the cultural production of the emotion of love to the concept of imaginary plenitude, well, yes, I do just assert this here. My position is that we are taught to desire a state of imaginary plenitude that never existed (Epstein says that it is the mother’s job to create this delusion). Then, we are taught to expect a return to this state that never existed when we find the right romantic partner–this is what I am merely asserting, right? I could spell out how our culture produces this expectation, and why, since the infantile state is, as Epstein says, just an illusion that never existed, and we can’t really return to it, we can never be happy in our relationships. To do this would take a lot of space, and would need to bring in a multitude of examples–I assumed that this had been done often enough that I didn’t need to do it again, that it was too obvious to need to be proven in this short review. But if you’re not convinced, go watch some chick-flicks on Netflix. There’s plenty of evidence of this cultural myth there!

    As for the fundamental connection to each other, it is my position that the mind is a collectively created symbolic system, and we are all completely connected to others. I’ve tried to make that clear any number of times one this blog and in the essays I’ve written in Non+X, as well as in the book we recently published. In the essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth” I give my answer to the question “why care.”

  13. I won’t waste my time enumerating their many mistakes.

    I’ve studied the topic, too, and I think the arguments that the romantic love is just cultural are very unconvincing. As you haven’t provided any evidence one way or the other and don’t seem interested in debating the issue, I guess we’ll leave it at that.

    Because it is nicer to believe it doesn’t make it so, and there’s no argument against “I just prefer to think so.”

    There’s a difference between believing something because it’s nicer to believe and believing something because it is a more satisfying explanation. Metaphysical explanations have satisfaction criteria that are not empirical but neither are they simply a measure of “nicer to believe.” Your metaphysics of no-God, anyway, certainly has no different warrant of support than this very satisfaction.

    You may not want there to be material explanations for consciousness, so will refuse to consider or understand them, but again, that doesn’t prove they don’t exist.

    Right. I think they’re mostly gibberish based on the desire of their holders to favor a scientism-based explanation of everything because it’s nicer to believe.

    But if you’re not convinced, go watch some chick-flicks on Netflix.

    That romantic love is not the way to the plenitude does not disprove the existence of the plenitude. Love gives a glimpse of what might truly exist but cannot be touched for more than a moment.

    In the essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth” I give my answer to the question “why care.”

    I read it but am not convinced.

    First, I’m not sure where your “symbolic” world exists in matter, which is where it would need to exist if, as you suggest, it dissolves the mind/body problem. Either it exists in matter and you can show me where in dead matter the inner experience of symbols (qualia) inheres, or else you’ve simply recreated Spirit/God/atman and dubbed it this symbolic system or collective mind or whatever.

    Second, if a symbolic system is all that exists, and there is no continuity of consciousness, I think the appropriate response would be to go full strength Nietzsche and drop the facade of any concern whatsoever for the public. The likelihood of one individual trying to improve by changing the entire symbolic system is both incoherent and unlikely. It’s incoherent because the individual changing the system is itself part of the system; the individual cannot change that system, then, unless that very system proposes to use the individual as an agent of change. It’s unlikely insofar as an individual is unlikely to better his own condition by trying to change the entire universe, just as it’s unlikely for an individual to improve his own condition by voting differently in a national election. It would make far more sense for the individual to accept things provisionally as they are and work within them to maximize pleasure. At least, it would if there were no God or soul.

    Third, if indeed the improvement of the symbolic system is what’s required for happiness, that would suggest the perfect possibility — indeed, the preferability — of a monastic artistic life attempting to improve the symbolic system with imaginary, rather than real, others. They would be much easier to work with, and, as you admit, even hermits can and do live within the symbolic system.

    By the way, can I suggest that you consider getting a better comment system? There’s no way to preview a comment, nor are there any formatting tools.

  14. Okay, Akilesh. You clearly have no idea at all what my essay says, and I can’t defend your ridiculous misreading of it, because if that were what I said it would be idiotic and indefensible. Ultimately, you can’t or won’t comprehenbd any argument against the existence of god. So there’s nothing much we can discuss here, and I don’t feel like wasting my time arguing over the god question right now. Let’s leave it at that, so the disussion can stay on the topic of the review.

  15. Even though Rogers professed this empathic stance, in practice he did lots of interpretation. At least, that’s what the research suggests. What’s interesting is that this unconditional positive regard could be used like Epstein uses it, or as the basis for analytic interpretation. I’m just brainstorming here.

  16. Might be somewhat off-topic, but I’ve seen some of my observations being incorporated at some point, so I’ll still add it:

    When I started reading books about Buddhism and meditating some things in my life got easier. For example, my relationship to my mother improved. Naturally, I thought this was a consequence of meditating, when I later realized it was mostly to what I learned about human psychology/behaviour (what in German is called “kitchen psychology”, “Küchenpsychologie”).

    I think that’s a point where X-Buddhism actively tricks people into believing that meditating “works”. Someone already mentioned somewhere that the fact that it “doesn’t work” is the reason why people soon move on. That’s true from my experience, but only after an initial phase where “it” actually works. However, as there is confusion about what exactly works there is less progress at a certain point.

  17. Thanks Tom for another great essay unmasking yet another Buddhist/psycologist clown.
    I simply can’t relate at all to what this guy is presenting. More comfort food for the privileged class? Just what planet is he living on? He’s promoting his book on Tricycle right now…says everything is trauma, toast is trauma, bliss is trauma, (good things are stressful also!) respect the pain that we are, but stay connected to the bliss that we are, blah blah blah–this, he says is the radical idea that the Buddha taught! What about the trauma of having to choose between paying your rent or letting your children go hungry? Trying to continue with an ever rising health insurance premium or replacing the bald tires on your old truck? It’s pretty clear who his audience is.
    He twists any truth in Buddhism and psychoanalysis into something that suits his own selfish needs and calls that enlightenment.
    Tom writes at the end of his essay: “Trauma is not an inevitable truth of human existence. It is what our ideologies cannot account for. Don’t bother trying to live fully in the sensory experience of a piece of toast. Start thinking about why so many people have no breakfast.” This is the painful question we should be discussing here.

  18. Thank you for (another) interesting text. I’m interested in the turn away from a Freudian, ”negative” understanding of the dynamic unconscious as lack that you mention, and would like to know more about what Freud actually wrote on this, and how this shift came about. Any suggestions for further reading?

  19. RE 16&17: I would say that therapy, and x-buddhist meditation, really do “work” to an extent. The problem is what they “work” to do. They seem mostly to function to produce and strengthen delusion, to create ignorant subjects who can be proud of their ignorance, and see it as a sign of “depth” and “sincerity” (in the case of therapy) or of “spiritual attainment.” Many people will get diminishing returns on this, and grow tired of paying for it–in therapy that’s called “termination,” or, sometimes, successful cure. Some people, being in a place in the social formation that makes it impossible for them to become good bourgeois subjects, will more quickly become frustrated with these ideological practices, and get annoyed and quit (statistically, the average number of therapy sessions most clients attend before quitting is 1.2; therapists say these people just “weren’t ready” or were “resistant,” and they aren’t included in any evaluation of effectiveness).

    Tutte: There’s been a lot written on this, but not recently. For the last thirty years, the positivist interpretation of Freud has dominated, and now there are even neurologists trying to locate the unconscious physically in the brain. My introduction to this was when I had to read Lacan for my literary theory area exams–I initially thought this was strange, but it quickly came to make sense. In “Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,” Lacan discusses “The Freudian Unconscious” and explains how it is the gap or aporia in a discourse. He writes about this again in several of the essays in “Ecrits,” and this is what motivated me to return to Freud and really read what he was saying, instead of assuming he was saying the absurd things my undergraduate professors said he was saying. “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” is very clear on this understanding of the unconscious as a lack. Russell Jacoby’s book “Social Amnesia” treats the shift from a proper understanding of Freud to the positivist version promoted by the neo-Freudians and ego-psychologists; it is a good book, and very engagingly written.

    I have a question for anyone: Does it seem that Epstein actually knows what he is saying is absurd and untrue? I mean, I have trouble believing someone could be, and stay, so ignorant, such a poor thinker, while graduating from college and writing books and doing therapy for so many years. Medical school, I can see–they tend to promote memorization and discourage actual thought–but wouldn’t somebody at some point have pointed out to him that he is absolutely wrong about Freud, or that he has no clue what anatman means? It would take a real effort to continue in blissful ignorance as he has, right? So, is he just a con-man, like those psychics who claim to communicate with your dead loved ones, fully aware that he is tricking and deluding people, but happy to take their money while they are in a state of emotional vulnerability? This really does seem to me to be the case with, say, Deepak Chopra, and may ohters–they’ll say any crap someone will pay them to say. is Epstein one of those, or is it really possible he is just that dumb and that deluded himself? I mean this seriously, because this book in particular was just too hard to believe. With “Thoughts Without a Thinker,” I got the impression he was just confused and mistaken, but this book seems to be just plain self-help-shelf level bullshitting to make a buck.

  20. Thanks for the references. I won’t link to the site, but there is a .pdf file of Jacoby’s book available out there, in case someone else wants to read it.

    As no one has responded to your question, I’ll go off on a (somewhat related) tangent here and say a few words about the reactions to Tutteji’s appearance on the spiritual marketplace.

    As some readers of this site probably have noticed, this character has advertised his business in an aggressive way at various x-buddhist, mindfulness-, and Ken Wilber-online fora. The most common reaction to these campaigns is initial disgust at the shameless cynicism and excessive use of the ™-sign, but it usually takes a while before someone realizes they’re dealing with satire. I’ve been getting some kind of perverse kick from watching this over and over again (”moar lulz”), but it’s really quite depressing. (Didn’t Karl Kraus say something similar?) More recently, a couple of x-buddhist luminaries have also *played along, displaying the kind of cynical distance that’s been a target for Žižek’s critique. Hardly surprising, the most insightful comment on the Tutteji prank came from someone outside the business: ”It’s like reading The Onion and thinking, ’man, this is actually not as bad as reality.’”.

    I don’t have an answer to your question, but I keep wondering: What does it tell us when people find it difficult to distinguish Tutteji’s satire from the real thing? Are these peddlers of snake oil incredibly stupid, or incredibly cynical about their own profession?

  21. Epstein is just charismatic. Deep down he knows he’s full of shit, but he believes he’s doing good.

  22. Tom #20, Craig #22 – In regards to Epstein’s level of consciousness in regards to what he’s publishing – having not read the book itself but plenty of others (in the space of X-Buddhism), I see this kind of writing as a personality that is “lost in the woods”. With enough isolation from being challenged on how your thought processes work and enough commitment to your own original ideas (regardless of how wrong they are), you get “lost in the woods”.

    I need to dig up books to cite but you see this with a lot of psychologists and MD’s who eventually disappear into their own systems of logic. I remember reading an x-buddhist title where the author eventually developed a system of ideas concerned with holding your hands in an open position in order to cause your psychological alignments to open up the same way, and then continued to describe how all the other elements of posture were forming the appropriate mental conditions for enlightenment.

    It’s rubbish, but it’s rubbish that is apparently very nurturing and sensible to the author.

  23. So Epstein’s just a con-artist who has succeeded in conning himself?

    I know this is the case with psychologists. Their funding comes from drug companies, insurance companies, the military, and they have to pretend to find what they are paid to find. Most of them convince themselves, eventually, that their poor reasoning, bad science, and double-speak is true. They invent all kinds of new short-term “treatments” with acronyms–if it has an acronym, it MUST be scientific–and these treatments never do anything at all, so they fuss with the design of the study and manipulate the data until they find some kind of “effect” and then proclaim the new cure. Many years ago, when I was a doctoral student in psychology, there was a big grant from Anheuser-Busch to prove that some of the alphabet-therapies could teach college students to drink in moderation. MET and “Stages of Change” where the popular ones at the time. Stages of change is just a vague description that, for psychologists, passes as a “theory,” and of course this didn’t have any effect at all–but they found a way to statistically “prove” it was successful, and it is still in all the textbooks today, still listed by APA as an experimentally validated intervention. If anyone questioned the absurdity of these studies, they would lose their funding, so a culture was created in which only those stupid enough to not see the absurdity or good enough at self-deception to ignore it could become psychologists. Just recently I was told, by those who train licensed therapists at the school where I teach, that it is unacceptable to be critical of others in the field–it is not part of the “culture” of psychology, and you will be denied a license or a job if you insist on pointing out errors or bad science or poor thinking.

    So, perhaps that is what is going on with Epstein, to some extent. He developed a niche in the world of Buddhist-therapy, where only the most powerfully self-deluded or just plain bad thinkers were likely to go, so nobody could criticize his bad thinking, and he could convince himself it is correct. It clearly is part of the “culture” of Buddhism to never criticize anyone or point out their errors or bad thinking.

    Personally, in reading this particular book, Epstein came off as completely lacking in self-awareness, and frighteningly needy–almost desperate to be applauded and praised for his vague platitudinous “wisdom,” like a child who needs approval from mommy for saying precociously clever things. He describes a patient who says she feels like she’s on a boat in the middle of the ocean clinging to the mast, and he contemplates moving beyond the metaphor and discussing her difficulties concretely, but then, “Luckily…something more vital popped out of my mouth. ‘But you’re the ocean as well.'” He then goes on to praise himself at length for how wise and wonderful this platitude was, and tell us how his patient even years later reminded him of this brilliant nugget of wisdom. The book is full of disturbing moments like this (including one horrifying passage in which he describes how he acted like a jealous three-year old trying to compete with his newborn infant for his wife’s attention–and he seems to remain completely unaware of the unconscious dynamic he describes).

    Still, I can see why nobody criticizes the alphabet therapies in psychology–if you can criticize them, you are drummed out of the profession, and so have no official standing to criticize them. But there’s no funding issue with Epstein’s rubbish, right? No doctor would lose his drug-company financing for pointing out how foolish this is. No Buddhist teacher would lose any federal grant for explaining that Epstein hasn’t the first clue what anatman means, and just doesn’t get Buddhism. I mean, sure, his teacher at the meditation center wants his money, no doubt, so just will stroke his ego, but that doesn’t stop other Buddhist teachers from explaining his mistakes to him.

    Sorry for rambling, but this kind of crap really is disturbing to me. Taking money to delude people who are in the midst of psychological crisis just shouldn’t be accepted because it wouldn’t be “nice” to point it out.

  24. Tom – a quick question that’s maybe a side topic, what’s the opposite course of study to what you’ve presented in this post? I came into Buddhism through whats on Amazon’s top 20 list (basically), I’ve accumulated a collection of mental junk of a similar nature to what you’re picking apart here, I’m curious – what is the opposite? Or at least materials that encourage better thinking instead of avoiding it?

  25. RE 25: I’m not completely sure what you’re asking, so let me know if I’m responding to your question here. I can’t guess what kind of books on Buddhism would be Amazon’s top 20–I just did a quick search, and the first 15 books under “buddhism” were all on neuroscience and mindfulness.

    Western Buddhism in the last 50 years has basically decided that Buddhism is “really” a kind of new-age, anti-intellectual blend of taoism and gnostic christianity. Almost all Western Buddhists perceive thought as either anger or suffering, and as a result they are quick to declare all Buddhist practices and texts before D.T. Suzuki to be “not real Buddhism.” Even Buddha himself, because he engaged in politics and in took part in the philosophical debates of his time, is declared to be a bad Buddhist. But for thousands of years, Buddhism has been a rigorous intellectual practice, demanding study and thought, and it has always and everywhere been engaged in the politics of the countries in which it existed. So, it isn’t hard to find texts which present the very opposite of what writers like Epstein declare Buddhism to be about. Personally, I’m partial to Nagarjuna. For centuries, studying his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and writing sophisticated commentaries on it was considered “real” Buddhist practice, while sitting in meditation was for those without the intellectual capacity to be serious Buddhists. And even then, meditation was nothing like the mindful “bare attention” and wallowing in emotion that Americans are so fond of today–meditation was effortful thinking.

    We have detailed commentaries on Nagarjuna today–Jay Garfield’s is great–but most Western Buddhists consider this to be completely alien to the practice of Buddhism. We could always practice Buddhism the way it was practiced by those who invented the game–get a group together to read a commentary on Nagarjuna,and debate its strengths and weaknesses. Or just discuss how Nagarjuna’s rigorous deconstruction of all metaphysical assumptions compares to those in Western thought, from Plato’s “Parmenides” to Derrida. Or discuss what kind of delusions support our existing political and economic system, and what we should do about it. These activities would be more like what Buddhism has usually been than what it is like for today’s x-buddhist teachers, who would insist we should never think, never be political, and any effort at discussion is a sign of ego and anger.

    There are many other great works on Buddhism, but most of them would send the average Think-Not-Hanh fan running, yelling “views” and “ego” and heading for her flower and her cushion. I also like “Moonshadows” by the group of Buddhist scholars that call themselves “The Cowherds.” There’s enormous potential for real thought there. And Bill Waldron wrote a very interesting essay that deals with the concept of non-self, called “Buddhist Steps to and Ecology of MInd” (there’s a pdf on his college website, here: I tried to get some member of my former sangha to read and discuss this, and they declined–it isn’t “real buddhism” because it requires thought!

    I don’t know if this responds to what you were asking–I can think of literally dozens of other good works that deal with Buddhist thought in interesting ways, and that ask us to change the way we think and live, instead of just sitting and feeling blissful.

  26. Tom #26 – Thank you, I didn’t phrase the question very well but that was the answer I was looking for. I’m a product of 10 years of study in that 50 year period of Buddhism that you referred to here, and I’ve become an anti-intellectual and incredibly invested in the no mind, mindfulness, bliss while doing taxes school of thinking that comes with it. It’s produced some very poor outcomes for me in the last decade and I want to start investing in using my mind again, applying it to my life and the situations around me and seeing what kind of outcomes I can produce.

    I’m just in a position where I’m incredibly blind to the other side of Buddhist literature outside of the contemporary works and trends that are around now. I feel that it might be best to walk away from the entire domain of Buddhism in order to explore this but the kind of tools and techniques you describe here seem sound. My only personal concern is slipping back into the comfort zone of having a morning meditate and hoping it stops me thinking long enough to “cope” with my day job (literally my approach at the moment), there has to be more conscious and engaged ways to work with your life.

  27. Tomo #25– thanks for joining the discussion here. Besides the texts Tom mentioned for an opposite course of study, I’d like to suggest another: “Cruel Theory/ Sublime practice”.

    Cheers, Danny

  28. Danny #28 – Thanks, I’ve been eyeing the title off on Glenn’s site. Appreciate the welcome, I feel like I’m bashing my way through deeper thinking again so apologies for my post quality until the wheels start turning faster. I could write a book on the way x-buddhism has shaped my thought patterns in the last decade or so. Feel like a recovering addict.

  29. Tomo (#29),

    would you mind to write more about how x-Buddhism has shaped your thought patterns? I’m always surprised how many people can’t even imagine that Buddhist practice could possibly cause any damage.

    In my (Ex-)Sangha one of the members suffered from a depression and I wondered whether his practice could have play any role with it (back then my thought was more like: maybe his practice went wrong). At least I would have expected them to discuss the matter, but it was simply dismissed as an biological problem (misbalance of hormones etc.).

    At the Secular Buddhism Forum someone wrote that there are stories of dropouts and their bad experiences with their religion from most major religions but not so much from Buddhism. Personally, I’d guess that Buddhism is even more dangerous as it attempts to shape your thinking very directly.

    Maybe it’d be interesting and useful to collect stories like yours.

  30. Saibhu #30 – I’ll sit down later in the week and put together some thoughts around the whole story, but the short version is – a lot of friendships, experiences and opportunities passed me by (or became dysfunctional enough to collapse) while I was bumbling around all day in “mindfulness” and sitting with a “pure mind”. There’s so much that I should have been doing that involved effort, thought and application towards myself and other people that I substituted with practices that would somehow convert into an outcome without effort (effortless effort?).

    I think the contemporary x-buddhist approach of seeking bliss in the moment / orgasmic cups of tea actually works as long as you are willing to sustain it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and don’t have much scope beyond your own personal comfort on a daily basis. “Mindfulness” produces some incredibly passive responses to situations that require more effort, but if you have faith that it’s the right path and don’t turn away from the idea that it’s a life well lived just paying attention to the immediate situation, you’ll be ok. Even if the lack of mental effort produces problematic outcomes, those problematic outcomes are still a blessing provided you can be mindful, right?

    The issue is, outside of some very select settings (like monks and nuns that are supported by a wider community of volunteers and are exempt from dealing with the usual day to day complexities of life) it’s virtually impossible to maintain “mindfulness” all day. This manifests in the following form – you can have a very, very good run with being mindful and sitting with an empty head, and this can take you great distances – distances that are far past your own comfort zone or what you would normally tolerate (both good and bad I suppose). However once you falter and your brain clicks into gear again – it’s not a pleasant situation. Suddenly when you stop for a minute and reflect on what is actually happening, and realise that yes, actually, you need to maintain that relationship, or resolve that health complaint, or pay your taxes. Just because it feels good to ignore them doesn’t actually make them go away, or make them less problematic in the sense of the determinism associated with their existence.

    I feel like a lot of x-buddhist practice robs you of the opportunity to form good habits and compartmentalize your thinking in effective ways to navigate your life but still find the outcomes and values that you care about. This maybe scales up to the kind of social good and engagement that you’ll participate in as well. If you are just enduring things by being mindful and completely ignoring the fact that they are injurious, or that it’s a situation you need to resolve or extract yourself from, I don’t see that it’s going to produce the motivation to act. In my own personal case I was in a life situation that I thought I was perfectly fine with, and was being attentively mindful too with no particular goal or strategy for how I was going to resolve it (after all, I didn’t need to – the difficulties were my teacher! etc.), and maybe on some level this work but in the long run it changed who I was, and caused me to become an incredibly toxic person in response to an ongoing toxic situation. I couldn’t escape the simple fact that my personal history and current environment was having an impact on me, even if I thought I could with various new age techniques. Now that I’m letting go of the x-buddhist approach to the situation another one is taking it’s place – that I need to review, plan, understand what my goals are and act on them to end the situation itself instead of continuing to live inside of it in the name of being a “good buddhist”.

  31. Tom #26 – In regards to Meditation practice being for people without the intellectual capacity to be serious Buddhists – what is the expansion of that topic, what did they consider the difference in the two approaches? Also if meditation was more concerned with effortful thinking would that bring it in closer relation to practices more general to other philosophies in regards to sitting quietly to think something through in detail? I’m especially curious in the latter as it erodes some of the obsessive focus on posture and physical body associated with the act.

    It seems a very general ritual to a lot of religions and cultures to take a walk or sit down with a glass of red to perform contemplation of a subject, did x-buddhism just run away with this topic and cut out all of the parts that were too hard to package up for someone else to perform on their own? Maybe modern mindfulness was the logical conclusion of this process combined with commercialization, it’s very hard to motivate people to think, or to sit still for any great length of time (especially if you’re selling the idea of a fix to them), mindfulness presents the bits that are left after you strip all of the “sitting” and “thinking” out of sitting and thinking, and it’s a sensation that is tangible enough that people feel like they have a result from it (in regards to the fact you can sense the different between concentration and distraction).

    Additionally it requires no time commitment at all, it’s like wearing a pledge band – you can keep on doing whatever you were doing before, but now you’re new and improved while you’re doing it.

  32. Re 32: Tomo, you might be interested in Donald Lopez’s book The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. He tries to explain some of the reasons that we came to focus on meditation, and particularly on one kind of meditation which was seen as only the initial and short-term introductory practice. As he explains it, “the ‘mindfulness’ that is now taught in hospitals and studied in neurology laboratories is thus a direct result of the British overthrow of the Burmese king”(99).

    For most of the history of Buddhism, the first stage of meditative practice would be to develop the capacity for concentration, but then one must move on to “analytic meditaion” which “entails a process of reflection, and even discursive reasoning, in which a thoroughgoing mental search is launched by the mind in an attempt to find among the elements of the body and mind something that …might be the self. The Buddhist claim is that no such self is to be found”(87-88). The idea is not to just experience the elements of the body with some kind of pure, objective awareness, but to analyze anything that we might think of as the “self,” and demonstrate that it is caused by other conditions, and impermanent–so, even any emotion is not something that is part of our “true self,” but is socially constructed, and we should, in analytical meditation, determine how it is constructed and what its effects and functions are. It is also interesting to note that the term for “self” and the term for “breath” were originally the same–the soul that enters the body is its “breath.” The meditative focus on “breath” was an attempt to demonstrate to oneself the non-existence of a self, not an attempt to just focus all our perceptions on the breathing sensation, as it is usually taught now.

    My position is that anything that requires any particular posture or ritual or language is an ideology, and not a truth. Truth can be available in any culture–and different cultures would require different practices to expose. Whenever we get attached to a zafu and the lotus position and the bell and incense, we are producing an ideology, not seeking the truth.

  33. Because, Matthias, no 34, there is no such thing as an ideology-free position. It’s not “having an ideology” that’s the problem, it’s believing that one DOESN’T have one.

  34. re 35: Yes, Peter, this is the point–and it is what is most diffixult for people to understand. We collectively produce our ideologies, but tend to think they are somehow natural or necessary–like the belief that captialism merely expresses human nature. These days, the last ditch desperate attempt to naturalize our ideologies is to find them in the brain, with “neuroscience.”

    But there i also Truth–and one of the most important kinds of truth is the correct understanding of the social formation our ideologies help reproduce, and of all the effects of our ideological practices. My claim would be that Buddhism is an unusual human practice in that it attempts to do both, to discover the truth AND to facilitate the production of a better ideology based on a correct understanding of the effects of our ideology.

    In psychology, as we see in Epstein’s approach, the Truth component is usually (I would say always) abandoned in order to facilitate the reproduction of the existing (capitalist) ideological social formations. Perhaps a more lasting happiness would be produced by truly enlightening the patient to the social and ideological causes of their supposed “trauma,” of explaining that this unthinkable aporia is a symptom of their ideological interpellation–but then they would go out to joyfully work to eliminate capitalism, to change the social formation. There’s no profit in that.

  35. My claim would be that Buddhism is an unusual human practice …

    Tom, saying „Buddhism” here you do not mean any particular x. You rather mean the common denominator „Dharma”, am I right?

  36. Re 38: Actually, I had in mind a particular practice of Buddhism when I wrote that. Dharma has radically different meanings in different x-buddhisms, so I wouldn’t think of it as a common denominator. But you are correct to point out that I’m using the term Buddhism too freely, and most practices that are called Buddhism would be attempting to do the very opposite of what I’m describing–that is, it is surely far more common to see “Buddhist” practices that function to naturalize a particular ideology and so are required to encourage ignorance and delusion. I’m thinking of the kind of Madhyamaka Buddhism Nagarjuna teaches us. This certainly is NOT the only thing called Buddhism, though, so I should have been more specific.

  37. OK. Tom (#39), thanks. But let’s go back to the basics then, I mean, to SNB basics, of course. You say that “Dharma has radically different meanings in different x-buddhisms, so I wouldn’t think of it as a common denominator.” OK. At the same time I see that on your new blog, you mentioned that you “might sometimes disagree” with what was said on SNB blog. Tell me then, it’s not that stupid of me to think that you’d rather disagree with how Glenn characterized “Dharma” in his article? I mean, contrary to what you say, that “Dharma has radically different meanings in different x-buddhisms”, he seems to quite clearly offer completely opposite definition of it – that “Dharma” is a kind of common denominator for all the x‘s. See the following:

    Dharma, The. The specular omen pontificator of samsaric contingency. Like God, Justice, Logos, Rta, The Dao, and so on, The Dharma (English: The Norm as buddhistic trinity of dispensation, truth, and cosmic structure) is the architect of the cosmic vault and the keeper of its inventory. As such, The Dharma is the buddhistic hallucination of reality. In its decisional function, The Dharma is the transcendent-immanent operator that synthesizes the purely immanent dyad of spatiotemporal vicissitude (samsara) and contingency (paticcasamuppada). The hallucinatory quality results from the fact that The Dharma is a function of a purely idealized (transcendent) grammar that produces oracular statements infinitum about the finite world (immanence). The Dharma is the buddhistic gathering together (under the authority of The Dharma) of reality‘s posited (by The Dharma) splintered whole, which splintering is exhibited by the (dharmically indexed) world condition articulated (by The Dharma) as spatiotemporal vicissitude-contingency.

    Don’t you think that this point alone signalizes where you quite seriously “’spin-off’ from the Speculative Non-buddhism” project?

  38. RE 40: No, I’m in complete agreement with this statement by Glenn. The Dharma is, in all x-buddhism, a hallucination of sorts, a decision they don’t recognize as a decision. The particular content of the term “dharma”, or the particular lack the term is used to cover over, is variable, however. They all make a decision, in Laruelle’s sense, but they don’t all make the SAME decision.

    I will still reserve the right to disagree with or “spin off” from anything written on Speculative Non-buddhism, including anything written by me in the past or at any time in the future. I hope, at some point, to learn things I do not yet know.

  39. Tom (# 41), as far as I understand term “decision”, it is primary an affective and cognitive operation. Tell me then, how can you avoid decision, this “hallucination of sorts,” if your very attempt of “forcing the Truth” has no other way to materialize but only via cognitive operation, that is, by using dharmic representations – buddhistic syntax or grammar – be it that of Nagarjuna or Shinran? Are you going to say that you can avoid decisional entrapment simply because you’re aware of existence of decision. How about your earlier statement, namely “that Buddhism is an unusual human practice …” – don’t you think that it shows signs of what Glenn concluded in his article saying that “’Buddhism’ names the principal and superior representer of exigent human knowledge. Yet, as mentioned earlier, given the inexhaustible inventory of reality engendered by buddhistic decision—indeed, given the very syntax of decision itself—Buddhism can be formulated and arranged in innumerable guises.” Again, how could you defend your position that you’re in fact immune to the hallucinatory pull of buddhistic decision, and not simply mesmerized by it, just another deluded buff trying to produce one more x-buddhistic spinn-off?

  40. Sorry, Tomek, but I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about, so I’ll have to drop this conversation here.

    Just a quick note to other readers: I have tried many times for years to answer Tomek’s question, but he either cannot or will not think clearly about anything, and simply returns periodically with the same confused questions, usually ending by ranting about the inevitability and wonder that is capitalism. I’m cutting him off to avoid wasting my time.

  41. Tom (#33), working through Scientific Buddha. Similar sensation to being told Santa Clause doesn’t exist. The opening sections where he sets up the depiction of the x-buddha and then promptly tears it down was bewildering as someone who’s been a faithful, productive and happy commercial supporter of the x-buddhist world for the last decade. I felt very content and justified in the bait section of Lopez’s bait and switch, and the further I read the more bewildered I am about what the hell I’ve been reading prior to this.

  42. I know the feeling, Tomo. I felt the same way when I discovered marxist literary theory and deconstruction in my junior year of college. In my experience, most x-buddhist I know who have encountered Lopez’s books don’t finish them, and just accuse him of being arrogant, egotistical and hostile. I didn’t get this impression of him, but he does talk about Santa Claus like there are not young children in the room. A truth we wish weren’t true will always feel a bit like a violent attack, or like a dictatorial pronouncement (what do you mean gravity is a law? I didn’t vote for it).

    The psychologists I know who have read Epstein just love him; but they would never dare read Lacan, or Foucault, or even one of Kurt Danziger’s books–they might have to face the truth, to realize that they are deluded and participating in deluding and oppressing the clients they think they are helping.

  43. Tom (#45), it definitely feels like an attack. I’m gradually getting more removed from x-buddhist thinking (I hope), but I was still secretly hoping to find some kind of new “absolute truth” in the text somewhere. It’s a horrible pattern that comes out of x-buddhist study – which final solution do I adapt to replace the thing I thought was the final solution? I don’t want to keep thinking, just tell me the answer.

    It never really occurs to you that there are benefits in dealing with the ambiguity of not having a prescribed process, comfortable solution or dogma to “fix everything” with.

    The other thing I’m encountering as I read more widely is that the “truths” a lot of modern Buddhist texts and blogs present as being sacred to Buddhism are present in different philosophical schools over history. I’m reading on Stoicism for the first time and amazed at encountering concepts I thought were unique to Zen Buddhism, without the insistence that you accept them on face value and stop thinking for yourself.

  44. Yeah, we all want to stop making effort, and just “feel good.” That’s why therapists like Epstein make so much money: they promise us that not thinking can help us achieve a state in which we just “feel,” and eventually just “feel good”–where even our sadness is a pleasant aesthetic experience. And if someone has enough money to insulate them from the need to interact with those who suffer to produce their luxury, they can even achieve this state, if they are lacking in a kind of innate intellectual capacity.

    I think the big difference in how these ideas are presented in x-buddhism is the not thinking part. The traditional Buddhist demand that you think these things through and really arrive at a full understanding of them is translated, in popular Tricycle-style Buddhism, into the repeated misquoting of the Kalama Sutta, as a command to reject anything that doesn’t fit with what you already believe–it becomes the practice of refusing to consider what is not already part of you own particular ideology. In Western philosophy, things haven’t gotten quite that bad yet (at least, not everywhere). It is fairly common to insist that in order to really understand a particular thinkers conclusions, you have to work through his arguments for them–one cannot dismiss Kant or Heidegger based on a one-line summary from Wikipedia, with the assertion that that just “doesn’t feel true to me.” X-buddhism gives people a way to do just that.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s