By Glenn Wallis
Who can still doubt that the logic of contemporary western x-buddhism is a redoubling of the logic of western neoliberal capitalism? On one hand, this should not be surprising. For, everywhere it goes, x-buddhism conforms to the dominant ideology of its host. On the other hand, it should be outright revolting. For, everywhere it goes, x-buddhism carries with it seeds for the destruction of that dominant ideology. Which way it pivots depends on the organizations that are built to house it. These organizations conceive of the subject and fashion the person who then replicates their values. The organizations of western x-buddhism, so far, have opted for the conservative status quo role. In doing so, they function as enablers of the social-economic turmoil, the effects of which their conformist practices are, so they tell us, designed to cancel out.
To claim that the current x-buddhist situation is simply “what it is,” and that nothing can be done about it, would, of course, just be adopting a cynical neoliberal position. Repudiating this stance, we can ask questions like: under what conditions might a militant thought-practice develop? Asked another way: given the intimate group nature of x-buddhist practice–people gathered in snug settings, even private living rooms–for practice and edification; given concepts such as radical interdependency, social-symbolic selfhood, and void; given the roots of the teachings in an urgent and outspoken disavowal of a repressive social formation, why are western x-buddhists such politically harmless creatures? Maybe it’s the organic food.
I recently received an email soliciting ads for Mindful Magazine. To encourage participation, the magazine included “our readers” statistics. I think these numbers are a fair indicator of the American x-buddhist scene in general. As I read them, these numbers are ambiguous. They certainly point to people with some disposable income (77% earn more than $75,000/year). But is that because of or in spite of our inequitable economic environment? In other words, do these readers have reasons to perpetuate the economic system or to alter it? Maybe how they feel about society depends on which books they are reading (30% have purchased 20+ books within the last year). Are they reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century or Thich Nhat Hanh’s A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles? Maybe what they’re reading depends, in turn, on what kind of education they receive (87% have college degrees; 55% have graduate or professional degrees). Is it along the lines of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy? Or is it more along the lines of the farce that Noam Chomsky criticizes in “Education is Ignorance”?* Nearly half of the readers are at an age (45% are 35-54 years of age) when their powers are at their height. Or is this the age of hardening conformity and impotent resignation? Like I said, maybe it’s the organic food:
93% value organic or natural foods and products.
The only thing that is clear to me from these numbers is that such people are in a position to effect social change, if they wanted to. It seems they don’t want to. Even given their revolutionary-cabal-like quality, x-buddhists just endeavor to rest at ease with things as they are. At best, x-buddhists can point with pride to their engaged-buddhist brethren. But engaged-buddhism rarely rises above ineffectual (patronizing?) charity work.
I think the real issue here is subjectivity. Regardless of what kind of person might go into an x-buddhist community, the question is what kind comes out.
Below, I offer some rough notes toward fashioning a contemporary thought-practice subject. First, I’d like to make a couple of points to those readers who answered “I can!” to my opening query. In the process, we get a glimpse of an increasingly common x-buddhist subject-formation environment.
In the “Fashion and Style” section of The New York Times recently was an article titled “How to Find a Job with Meditation and Mindfulness.”** Did I mention that this was in the “Fashion and Style” section? Anyway, this article inadvertently offers an instructive image of the neoliberal thought suffusing all varieties of American x-buddhism. (Note that we now have to include under this term allegedly secular and atheist forms of x-buddhism as well as hypothetically de-buddhacized modes of meditation and mindfulness.) What do I mean by neoliberal thought? In short, I mean:
[Certain] responses to the contemporary political situation [that] share a common premise: that global capitalism is now a permanent condition of historical, social, cultural and political existence. Hence whatever political responses one may envisage must operate within the prevailing ideological consensus, which is defined by the disavowal of the economic and hence social antagonisms underlying our social, cultural, and political institutions (Robert Sinnerbrink, “Goodbye Lenin? Žižek on Neoliberal Ideology and Post-Marxist Politics,” Žižek Studies, Volume Four, Number Two, pp. 7-8).
The Times article does not, of course, make explicit this bond between meditation/mindfulness and the neoliberal spirit of cynical surrender cum profit maximization pervading it. Some excerpts should make the point. I want to add that I think this cynical neoliberal pervasion extends throughout American x-buddhism, regardless of the (very thin) lines separating the different varieties.
The article gets right to the point:
Meditation has been good for Olivia Chow’s career.
This paragraph comes later in the article, but it fits well here.
What makes meditation palatable to entrepreneurs and executives these days is that it is perceived as a tool to help increase productivity. A quiet mind more easily recognizes unexpected business opportunities and is poised to react more astutely. “If you are looking solely for an investor, you might be guided to, or looking for, the guy in the business suit,” Mr. Gordhamer said. “Instead, you may need to be talking to the guy in jeans.”
Back to Ms. Chow.
Meditation is more than peace of mind for Ms. Chow; it fuels work. Recently she said she was hired by three fellow meditators to make custom-fit clothes. “I network wherever I go,” Ms. Chow said.
Meet Ben Bechar, who attends an invitation-only meditation class…:
“Ben Bechar, a technology entrepreneur,said he had attended as many as four networking events a week with little to show for it. However, at the Path, a new invitation-only meditation class that officially opened last month, he said he had met not only a potential investor, but also five beta testers for his new app. The investor introduced Mr. Bechar to other financiers, too, and he said he hoped to find out in a few weeks whether he will get the funding he seeks. ‘I’ve had more success at meditation than I’ve had at any networking event I’ve attended,’ Mr. Bechar said.”
…and finally zenny, savvy, risk-taking Ms. Rothschild:
Mr. Keledjian presents himself as a model of successful meditation, sitting cross-legged for photographers in his homes in New York City and the Hamptons. Impressed by her Zen and savvy, Mr. Keledjian wooed Ms. Rothschild, convincing her to move to New York to help him research health and wellness investments. She agreed and arrived this fall. “I thought I should put my ego aside and just take a risk,” Ms. Rothschild said. “That’s what it means to be part of this movement.”
The article even anticipates a pretty obvious criticism (need I mention it?) with this all-too common cynical argument:
Some meditation instructors welcome students intent on networking because they recognize that people are driven by different motivations. Among them is Emily Fletcher, who founded Ziva Meditation in 2012, a membership-based studio that caters to a wide-reaching clientele, including Broadway actors and investment bankers. “If you come to meet an investor and you meditate, that is great,” she said. “I don’t care why you come. I’m just glad you did.” If you want to meditate at Ziva, finding an investor may not be a bad idea. Ms. Fletcher charges $1,100 for a four-day introduction, as well as unlimited access to follow-up classes and support. Her online meditation course costs $250.
And, of course we should be compassionate. After all:
It is hard to quiet the mind in a city where competitive cab-hailing is a blood sport. So why not look for a little stress relief, or start-up financing, among empathic meditating friends?
The non-buddhist facilitator
It is a matter of minute degrees between the most traditional and most secular x-buddhist communities. By contrast, I offer here some rough notes on the non-buddhist group facilitator. This facilitator is a subjective figure. S/he is inscribed in the text itself, and is in need of organization to come into flesh and blood personhood. It is a subject who stalks x-buddhist thought and practice, cauterizes it with the non, militarizes the material, and acts with courage in the world.
What does such a person, such an identity, look like? In a recent introductory talk on the thought of Alain Badiou,*** Australian scholar of psychoanalysis, Justin Clemens, enumerated what he consider to be crucial characteristics of a “key thinker.” Since I envision a person who is, in the first instance, a thinker, I will paraphrase or quote verbatim (in italics) some of his points to make my own.
First, on this matter of “a thinker,” one of Heidegger’s notoriously bad didactic poems proves, as they so often do, insightful:
Discourse cheers us to
Such reflection neither
parades polemical opinions nor
does it tolerate complaisant
agreement. The sail of
thinking keeps trimmed hard
to the wind of the matter.
From such companionship a few perhaps
may rise to be journeymen in the
craft of thinking that one of them,
unforeseen, may become a master.
As this becoming a master via companionship indicates, the facilitator is also the image of the participant.This means, too, that whatever goes for the facilitator goes for the participant.
The facilitator should be a polemicist (but not concerning mere “opinion,” as we will see). S/he takes any comfortable agreement that you think you have, and drives it to the point where you will have to assent to something you don’t want to and now have to if you indeed want to remain rational. Or s/he will force you into contradiction where you will scurry back to your prejudices. Or, best of all responses, s/he will force you to try to think against him. It should be clear that the facilitator sees repressive prescriptions of decorum such as “right-speech” for what they are.
The facilitator should reveal to you your own ignorance and stupidity. He should do so to the degree that you either have to accept your ignorance or fall back into your pathological embrace of self-satisfaction. The point here is, of course, not denigration or humiliation. The point is to force each other up against the limits, gaps, and dark spaces of our knowledge. This principle is founded not on an intellectual idealism, but on an ideal of anti-anti-intellectualism. Realization of stupidity is an assault on narcissism and complacency. Realization of stupidity, if followed through with new study, thought, and dialogue, is a form of liberation.
The facilitator doesn’t help us with our work, provide handy rules of thumb, give you lessons for life, tell you established truths, entertain, or make you the slightest bit happier.
The facilitator assaults our beliefs, opinions, knowledges. S/he forces you to make some kind of acknowledgement to the weakness of your own ideas. Forces you to change your thinking under the pressure of something that goes beyond the both of you. This is done not through violence but through reason. Badiou: Thought-practice is something like a logical revolt. It pits thought against injustice, against the defective state of the world and of life. Yet it does so in a manner that conserves and defends argument and reason, which ultimately proposes a new logic.
Group encounters should always have something outrageous about them, something inhuman, like science fiction. Group encounters should produce derangement in the participants. The setting should be not just a furnace room for combusting delusions, but a greenhouse growing anxiety and bewilderment. Contrary to sacrificing the impossible dreams of the imagination to the current state of things, group encounters raise the prospect of realizing them, heightening, at the same time, the tension that comes with the necessary commitment.
** “How to Find a Job with Meditation and Mindfulness.”
What do you think?