Dialogical Meditations I
Posted by Glenn Wallis on November 13, 2014
Matthias Steingass: We have been talking about direct interaction in Germany/Switzerland for some time now, but for some reason it hasn’t happened so far: After some initial interest in the project most people pull out again. The initial interest oftentimes seems to consist of two parts, a) a vague notion of a new truth, and b) the expectation of authority leading to a new truth. As soon as it becomes obvious how deep the critique goes and that there will be no authority leading into the transition to a hypothetical new truth, interest fades or changes into naïve x-buddhist opposition. The result is that very few people go any further.
Glenn Wallis: I’ve experienced the same outcome. It was quite disheartening, but not the least bit surprising. I tried an experiment with a meditation group. To explain briefly, I altered the group from one that would seem strange but nonetheless familiar to a traditional (western) soto-zen-buddhist to one that was, well, just strange. The original group was popular, with twenty to thirty participants each session, and a constant stream of new people. Participants were accustomed to a predictable protocol—instruction, sitting facing the wall, walking, bowing, more short sitting, talk (by me) and discussion. There was a lot of buzz around the group, and its reputation spread. Now, I asked comers to sit facing one another in a circle for a full hour without a word spoken. After the hour, someone would read a short piece of text. Everyone was then invited to dialogue. After a few weeks, the group shrunk to three or four participants,
Matthias Steingass: To me it seems something is missing here. What happens in that hour? Was there ever a dialogue what people actually were doing? Why are they doing it? And if you explained what they should or could do, how did they actualize it? What’s happening? They great mystery and power of meditation seems to be that no one ever talks about it. Or at least it is rarely done. I do not mean the endless buddhemic discourses. I mean an actual dialogue about what people experience when doing certain kinds of such mind work. Moreover, what has the sitting hour to do with the text? I recently saw a video about how scientists researched what a surfer is doing. Among a lot of things they measured his brain activity. They found something interesting. After the surfer paddled out to the place where he would wait for the right wave to ride, he got in the alpha-mood. That is, while watching and scanning the incoming waves the EEG showed an increase of so called alpha waves. These waves develop while a human is in a relaxed, quite but alert state. Still and wide awake. In other words: A kind of meditation. Being quite and wide awake can be called a certain mind work. My point is: This kind of mind work is part of and embedded in a certain pattern of activity. It is part of ones life. It has meaning full place in some ones activity. Now, just sitting for an hour might be meaningful, but was it meaningful to these people? And what was the connection to the text?
A point I often try to make is that different meditations might be entirely normal states of being with the difference that they are specifically trained for certain reasons and for specific applications. An example I often used is sitting on a park bench just watching what happens. For example an author who his collecting material for a novel might sit – like the surfer – calmly watching what is coming in. He will have a kind of open and relaxed receptivity for any kind of activity which is developing. He will not drift into daydreaming because he could miss something. But certainly thoughts will cross his mind witch he takes note of if they are interesting or which he will skip if not. All the while watching what happens.
Now in introspective meditation – to give it a name – the process of watching what is coming in, watching the waves, is applied to the working mind itself. Mind work is working the mind in this way. It will be a kind phenomenology, which can be differentiated to some extent. But the process is complicated because we cannot any more presuppose a common mind form, or an objectified kind of mind, like an objectification in classical phenomenology (Husserl). The distortion which inevitably is part of communication makes this impossible. So if we begin 1) a dialogue about a differentiated perspective on what the mind actually does while thinking – for example by taking classical buddhist texts, not simplified contemporary derivatives – we already have to take into account that each person gets a more or less different view about what has to be done while actually sitting and watching. The next step 2) is actual training in watching the mind working. This comes with a set of instructions like, for example, to concentrate on the experience of the mind concentrating on a given object, the mind inevitably wandering away, then at some point remembering the object again and concentrating again. How, for example, is the experience of daydreaming and suddenly remembering and becoming aware of daydreaming. This is already quite a task to accomplish. Phase 3) is to facilitate a dialogue about this. Hereby the facilitator is of great importance. He needs some specialized knowledge about how to get people into the dialogue. Especially because the dialogue is only of any value if it is willing to leave established known symbolic terrain. People must be willing to be creative and experimental with how they relate an experience. For example, people almost certainly will feel misunderstood by getting themselves rid of pre-formated buddhemic notions about their meditation. The facilitator must be able to make it clear that misunderstanding is inevitable and in fact part of the show. It is a fertilizer.
Glenn Wallis: There is this persistent idea—probably more like an unquestioned belief (dogma?)—that meditation necessarily revolves around experience, consciousness, states of mind, and that sort of thing. I would like to put this species of meditation out to pasture. It is a species that locks the practitioner of meditation into a vortex of meaning-seeking no different from any other idealist, atmanistic big Other-directed system. It’s a species of meditation that bears the sign of the old phenomenologists’ dream of the epoché, in which it’s assumed that there is some sort of pivot point within consciousness from which consciousness itself and all other phenomena can be viewed, or are permitted to appear, unsullied by our structuring categories. I’d like to contribute to the dispelling of such fantasies. These fantasies are commonplace in meditation environments. And they always involve some notion of “watching your mind.” I’m trying to re-conceive of meditation in purely materialist terms. I don’t mean the vulgar materialism of western buddho-scientism. I mean more the materialism that I see in thinkers like Laruelle, Badiou, and Žižek, a variety that prioritizes, for instance, social formations over those of consciousness.
Matthias Steingass: The difference between your first phase in the meditation group and the second might be that in the first they at least somehow imagined that their activity is part of a greater undertaking, while in the second this meaning vanished. Perhaps the vanishing of meaning is too advanced. Perhaps that’s already too real. Or perhaps it’s just useless to sit for an hour if one is not waiting in prayer.
Glenn Wallis: What such sitting is, how it’s conceived and articulated, would have to emerge out of the dialogical formation at the heart of the group. Once we uncouple a practice, such as meditation, from any given system of thought, we really have no choice but to take this course. Meditation is not meditation. It’s just a person sitting brutely still, silent, and aware. For what reason, to what end, a person might sit like that is not only no longer over-determined by a doctrine, it is wholly undetermined. Maybe a community based on study and dialogical exploration of some x will want to determine or fix a value to that practice. But that involves a completely different approach. In any case, in the group I mentioned earlier, we failed to unburden the practice of its buddhistic pretensions. In some of the terms that we have used on this blog and elsewhere, I would diagnose this failure along these lines. X-buddhism currently presents itself along two lines of trajectory: (1) as a permutation of the dream of the coming—yet perennially deferred—New Age spiritual apocalypse; namely, as a pseudo-secularized (and crypto-religious) technique for decisively uncoupling oneself from the alien-like stress and tension inherent in participating in our techno-consumerist maelstrom; and (2) as the ancient curative fantasy known as nirvana. In both instances, x-buddhism interpellates, or calls into being, a subject who is necessarily predisposed toward certain tendencies and disinclined toward others. It’s too much to get into here, and it really involves acquisition as much as predisposition, but, briefly for now, among the predispositions I’d include: susceptible to a big Other (as in Lacan) in doctrine and in the person of the teacher, and to the transcendental illusion (as in Kant) in terms of their habits of reasoning; prone to a code of deontological ethics; fanatical as opposed to enthusiastic (as in Badiou) for a new social-linguistic-imaginary place. In the briefest terms, they are disinclined toward any manner of praxis that aims precisely to expose such tendencies, that aims to enable one to traverse the fantasy (as in Lacan). I would include among these enablers features of praxis such as explicit exposure to ideas about the big Other, investigations into reasoning habits, consideration of an ethics of resistance, and the conscious adopting of place. So, again, we’re talking here about new ideologies, new subjects, and new organizations.
Matthias Steingass: The question here is, regarding what you said about your mediation group above, what has any kind of meditation to do with it? A differentiated phenomenology of the individual mind system at work might help, but I think such a differentiation has to be trained explicitly. What has any kind of literally just sitting to do with the investigations into reasoning habits, for example? A training in a more fine grained observation of ones own mind might be helpful in such a case but it has to be taught and trained explicitly. And then again it is the question, don’t we have it already? Think about how a psychoanalytic session is structured. The client learns to watch the flow of his associations, the analyst is hovering in a kind of relaxed and alert attitude just looking what’s happening. Isn’t this already meditation? And isn’t it embedded in meaningness, a meaningness which morphs, while the traversing is done?
On the other side, I can imagine a useful kind of just sitting. It’s main feature is its uselessness. But this doesn’t has any use as long as we try to use time usefully. This might be a real advanced meditation. It could only be done, when one alters ones conception of time. We are deeply suffused with the thought about the value of our time. So deeply that this value seems natural. That is certainly a question about ideology. But then this kind of meditation only makes sense after the traversing of this specific fantasy is done (a fantasy which might be a central one, like a cornerstone, making the house come down when extracted). Maybe in that way the usefulness of just sitting becomes visible: if we realize how useless our concept of the value of time is – at least when applied unconsciously to meditation. Only then Beckett‘s thought might become meaningful without being an affront.
Glenn Wallis: Just to clarify, I think we have to look to study—the consideration and formation of concepts—and dialogue to do that traversing work, such as becoming sensitive to our reasoning habits. I just employ meditation axiomatically. I don’t want to inscribe it with any meaning or purpose. If I did, I’d tip-toe in the direction of kenosis. But even that’s too much. What happens in the dialogue-study community will give the participants ample material for conceptualizing practice on their own terms. Or maybe various group understandings will pop up, disappear, and emerge again in a different form. I want to mention, too, that a materialist conception of practice doesn’t foreclose on what many people think of as “spiritual” practice. As I mentioned in the last post, I am very interested in the materialist theology of people like Caputo, Eagleton, Žižek, Laruelle, Badiou, and maybe even Hegel. I think that Tom Pepper’s work provides many innovative examples along these lines. Look at his discussion of rebirth in Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice, for an example. We probably should think carefully about the fact that Pepper self-identified as a Shin Buddhist when he wrote that. But maybe that’s a conversation for another day. In any case, everything that we’ve been discussing requires some form of community, of material engagement.
Matthias Steingass: I welcome your new initiative to get community and/or organization going. In this regard, I put forward two theses:
- The very act of communication is community.
This general statement has a lot of implications. I want to narrow it done here and now to one point: What happened with the initiation of this blog and the few texts you wrote to facilitate it was the beginning of community and organization. All communication at this blog was community and organization.
- Community and organization must mean that it understands the system it establishes by analyzing, interpreting, thinking about and changing relevantly the rules which grow with the community.
To explain it with a corollary:
Every taboo hints at a rule which is secretly, unconsciously guarded, or guarded by power structures not obvious and accessible to all members of the community; therefore, such taboos must be approached and analyzed by the community.
Glenn Wallis: I agree wholeheartedly with both of your theses. Concerning the first one, I would say that not only do acts of communication constitute community, but the inverse as well: community is communication. A crucial consequence of this thesis is that community is perpetually open to new ideas and practices. I think that we—everyone who has participated on this blog generally, and you, me, and Tom Pepper in Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice, in particular—have created materials that can be fashioned into dynamic real-life communities, real-time organizations. I am interested in thinking through how that might look, and even manifest, in actuality.
Matthias Steingass: Regarding material we developed and material about buddhism which comes from other sources: We laid a lot of emphasis in criticizing present day x-buddhism, namely a specific interpretation of buddhist material in our culture. Moreover we laid a lot of emphasis on criticizing trivial interpretations (Think Not Hahn, MBSR, Batchelor, etc.). We should look more to the material which is coming from the academy. Think about the Dun Huang translation project, or what we know today about Gandhara (to give two examples). Now, you said in your recent text, “the purpose of ruining is not to perform intricate philological surgery on the x-buddhist ‚text‘.“ What I want to suggest is somewhat the opposite. Let’s take what the academy is presenting in terms of archeology, philology, reconstruction of dead language, social relationship, economy, ritual, etc., and let’s play with this. Not unlike Tom Pepper’s hypertranslations, his thought about karma and reincarnation or Shinran and Hegel, but with one more twist to it: We should play with this with the idea in mind that we could encounter something absolutely alien. Foucault’s historical apriori in principal says that it formats a certain kind of thought which is unthinkable in another historical apriori. What if we accept this possibility and work under the presupposition that we’ll never know what really happened (and this is contra to the idea of knowing about a truth event which happened then). This then is the superposition of human mind which in different historical situations develops thoughts which are uninterpretable to each other. But the more material we use from what is unearthed by the academy, the more it becomes possible that the constant interaction of these particles create a critical mass which brings birth to a new alien thought. Whereby the old one we’ll never know – at least we will never be able to prove the budhofiction we create will anything have to do with what they then thought. This is a shameless game because it uses, without any restraint, and in an eclectic and idiosyncratic way, whatever material comes its way.
Glenn Wallis: I agree that that sort of work could prove valuable. Tom Pepper’s hypertranslations are a particularly promising example. Having a foot, or maybe just a toe by now, in that world of Buddhist studies, however, I can see massive quagmires down that road. I think my interest in Laruelle is related to my reluctance to engage in any form of reconstruction, even a playful one. I am more inclined toward, say, Badiou’s militant practice of using force and destruction in order to dis-place an ideological structure, and thereby open radically new ground. Again, maybe that’s a topic for another discussion.
Concerning community, I think that online communication is a valuable feature of such a community. We can use it to formulate and debate ideas, share successes and failures, and so on. But I don’t see how face-to-face community can be left out. I think that the difficulty that we started this discussion with can be ascribed to the fact that we, or at least I, merely inverted the x-buddhist model. What I did was inscribe x-buddhism with its negative. That’s not going to work. It’s too late for that approach. At best, it will result in a regression. That approach is still too determined by what’s come before. So, a looming question for us is: what form might such a newly conceived communication-community take? I think people like Paulo Freire offer concrete examples (see, for instance, his “Education and Conscientização” in Education for Critical Consciousness).
Many specific ideas can be fashioned from the non-buddhist material, too. But for now I would suggest the general principle of infusing anemic x-buddhist discourse—assuming that the continuity with Buddhism is deemed desirable—with the lifeblood of alien thought, specifically, that of western materialist thinkers from Althusser to Žižek.
Matthias Steingass: But I wouldn’t focus on discourse with x-buddhism any more. As you said a certain subject is interpellated in contemporary Buddhism. This subject is antagonistic and oblivious to SNB. There is only a small percentage of people who take the pains to understand important terms, like interpellation for example. I suggest that material developed in this venue should stand by its own. We should work on developing a better online presence with the goal that people can find our stuff. Networking with other networks should be established. With artists and scientist of any kind. But at the same time, let’s be realistic. It really is the 1 to 99 relation. 1 person working 99 being entertained. As long as this relation does not change I see no chance for SNB to have any bigger impact.
Glenn Wallis: I agree that dialogue with committed x-buddhists is not the project we’re interested in. After all, like I said, I don‘t want to re-inject atman into the current idealist fascism of x-buddhism, hence my materialst practice; and I have never met an x-buddhist who can abide that move.
Matthias Steingass: I see a paradox here. If x-buddhism is interpellating a subject which is opposed to a new social-linguistic-imaginary place, as you say, how should this subject be interested in a re-injection of anatman? Maybe we must be very much clearer here about whom we want to address. For sure it’s not the idiots of no-ego-no-problem. Perhaps the strategy again must be more about producing and presenting more budhofiction to become thereby more magnetic and then waiting for what is attracted. With this in mind I want to suggest to rethink our stance towards the level of our material. It is often times said, that what we produce is too complicated. When we answer, well just take dictionary and look it up, we do the opposite as those x-buddhists who announce meditation retreats and regardless what is presented it is always open to any level. Don’t we have somehow the obligation to offer different levels of material with the more advanced levels building on the lesser ones? This suggests a kind of gradual approach. Is the cancellation of warrant really/always a sudden event? In this regard we could begin with writing a short paper about the Theses of SNB.
- Buddhism is an invention of twentieth century Europe.
- It is disguised christian-romantic thought.
- There was an event in India twenty-five hundred years ago.
- We hear a distorted echo of it now, and nothing but this.
- There is no original.
- Anatman went missing in Buddhism.
- Anatman implicates a specific meaning which goes against contemporary hyper-individualism.
- SNB aims to establish a responsibility which anatman implicates.
- Social relationships are not a natural given. The rules governing these patterns have to become visible to the practitoner.
- As to this task every present day tool can be used.
- Likewise every buddhist notion has to be put to the test (even anatman).
- Society today is far from being liberated. SNB is a force to make our golden fetters visible.
- SNB aims to understand the strange being the human is.
(That’s just off the top of my head)
Glenn Wallis: I’m down with all of that! I would make clear somewhere around #10 that study-dialogue communities are a particularly potent vehicle toward these ends. I am wondering if a party, maybe along the lines that Badiou spells out, is necessary. It would, of course, be a party of forces and infusions. Among other things, such as perpetually displacing static structures, forces and infusions will enable what Laruelle calls a “superposition of vectors,” whereby each mode of thought-practice “interferes” with the other, creating a potent new conjugation. That’s not as vague as it might sound. To get at the concrete possibilities of this idea, you’d have to imagine a group of thoughtful people sitting in a room, a facilitator, a practice (meditation?) conceived as corollary to unsentimental social engagement, and plenty of desire, passion, and— why not?—love.
About your second thesis, I would say that making explicit the taboos are indispensable for an emancipatory community. (Again, this assumes that we want to maintain, though under these new conditions, the primary Buddhist trope of liberation.)
In other words, the taboos mark the places where we’ve naturalized oppressive regimes of thought and social practice. I am thinking of the “unknown knowns” that, as Žižek reminds us, Donald Rumsfeld failed to mention. Sitting around our table or whatever discussing equality, we all know that Wallis hogs the conversation, and that we even sort of want and expect that from him, but how can we say so without pulling the threads out of the group fabric? Better not to acknowledge the fact. Best to keep it unknown. My own effort to reveal such repressed truths in the depths of the group is to give them voice. Let’s do an exercise every so often called Name That Taboo!
Matthias Steingass: In a way, my theses are connected to another point I want to make regarding your initiative. It is about meaning. You wrote in the last post “Worstward Ho!”:
For those of you who might like to participate, I want to emphasize that the purpose of ruining is not to perform intricate philological surgery on the x-buddhist “text” or, indeed, even to explicate its meaning. […] The purpose of ruining is to create a reading, thinking, living empirical individual, one who is able to actualize the emancipatory (whatever that might mean) thrust of decimated x-buddhist thought and practice.
You don’t want to explicate meaning, but you say the purpose is an individual actualizing an emancipatory thrust. If we don’t want to explicate, how can we think the process of the establishment of meaning otherwise? Because, if I understand you right, if you say there is emancipatory thrust, this is meaning (whatever that might mean). So in the light of my above two theses, how can we think and actualize community and organization based on non-explicatory development of meaning?
Glenn Wallis: I would encourage people to read Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster in this regard. I would quickly add, though, that I agree to some extent with Badiou’s claim that Rancière’s approach might hinder robust political-social action. I’m not sure. In any case, The Ignorant Schoolmaster is an extraordinary resource for thinking through this difficult issue that you raise; namely, that of the relationship between (non-)explication and emancipation (and its inverse: explication and stultification). It’s interesting to read Rancière in light of Freire’s idea of education as midwifery for critical consciousness, the latter which Freire equates precisely with emancipation. In short, I think the key is not to get too precious or literal about “not having an agenda,” and “non-explication,” and so on. We do have an agenda. We can’t avoid explication. We do have values. We have to start somewhere. But in light of what we have been saying about communication and community, we won’t stay there very long.
Matthias Steingass: I read The Ignorant Schoolmaster two or three years ago. I would have to re-read it more thoroughly to say something more about it. But it tells a very interesting story I experienced myself. Almost everything I know I have taught myself. English, for example, I learned from a bilingual book. This autodidactic style has pros and cons for sure. The relevant question here would be how does anyone come to use such a style. In my case, I adopted form a relatively early age onwards role models which showed how to learn and work as an autodidact. The great irony today is that the times never have been better for autodidactic learning, but the tools and materials at hand are seldomly used.
Image: “Dimensions of Dialogue.”