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.
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.