Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?

Fifteen years ago there was a documentary series on HBO called Kindergarten.  The show diylab500x309followed a group of kids in the course of their school year, filming their interactions until they became almost oblivious to the cameras.  In one episode, a girl is showing her classmates something she wrote.  One classmate, apparently amazed at her friend’s ability to write, asks “How do you write those words?”  The girl replies simply “I used a pencil.”

Clearly this doesn’t answer the question intended, but it does in one sense answer the question asked.

Part of my argument here will be that the advocates of a biological account of the mind are using the same kind of response as this little girl. However, while she simply didn’t understand that her classmates couldn’t write as well as her yet and so misunderstood the question, they ignore the real problem, refuse to understand the question, and then claim they have provided an answer.  What they offer is an explanation of something (the girl really did use a pencil to write the words), but not one that says anything about the real problem they have pretended to solve.  Neurological accounts of things like enlightenment, or of thought in general, simply offer up an account of one of the efficient causes of the thing in question; this is not much different from explaining that I wrote this by tapping keys on a computer, and just asserting that accounts for things like how I arrived at the meaning I am attempting to convey.

Furthermore, I am going to suggest that in the case of what I will call the reductivist version of x-buddhism, this evasion serves to produce a pernicious kind of neoliberal ideology.  Among these reductivists I would include the advocates of mindfulness as well as all of those who suggest that Buddha was in some way a neuroscientist, or that Buddhist teachings are borne out by neuroscience, or that enlightenment is in some way a brain state dependent on some kind of neuroplasticity. All of those who believe we can reduce enlightenment (or happiness, or contentment, or awakening) to the level of bodily processes (neurons firing or sensory perceptions or feelings of comfort) are asking their followers to believe something false about the world, because that false belief is integral to the neoliberal ideology they hope to produce, and to profit from.

In part, my response was motivated by the recent release of Shinzen Young’s Book The Science of Enlightenment. However, I will use this book only as an example of the pervasive mistaken assumptions common to the reductivist x-buddhists.  The same critique applies to arguments like those made in Buddha’s Brain by Hanson and Mendius and in Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, or in Sam Harris’s Waking Up, as well as a host of other such works too numerous to list.  Some readers may wonder (some have already asked) if this is not an example of setting up a straw man to avoid dealing with those other works.  After all, I’ve been told, Young is evidently a bit dim and quite obviously wrong in just about everything he says.  Nobody of average intelligence would ever take him seriously, so arguing against him is, well, like debating with the Long Island Medium: his game is the same kind of grift as hers, and even bothering to point this out to people is embarrassing.  I can see this point, but consider this: if this is the case (and I suspect just about all readers of this site would agree it is) doesn’t it make it more troubling that the basic assumptions Young begins from and the conclusions he reaches are shared by so many people?

So don’t fear, I won’t waste your time pointing out factual inaccuracies and flawed reasoning in Young’s rather inane book.  What I want to focus on are the assumptions he can take for granted, and that most people in our culture would probably share without hesitation.  Because if we begin with them, and stick to them, we ought to all wind up where Young does.

And I hope that this is troubling enough to make us stop and rethink these assumptions.


Enlightenment is just a toke away!

Young’s paradigmatic example of what he means by enlightenment, which he repeatedly calls “classical enlightenment,” is the experience he had in his younger days of dropping acid, then smoking some pot and eating a brownie.  Here’s part of his account:

I really got into that brownie.  For a few minutes I entered a state of samadhi…I became so focused on the act of eating the brownie that everything else fell away…There were holes in the brownie caused by gas bubbles…As I bit into the brownie, I could clearly detect the diffuse texture of the cake, the dense envelope around the holes, and the nothingness inside the hole.  I remember thinking, “The holes taste as good as the cake.”  At that moment, the duality of existence versus nonexistence passed away, and for a moment I was thrust into a world of oneness. (9, emphasis in the original).

Now, most of us of a certain age can remember those experiences of getting high and having a euphoric enjoyment of junkfood.  But most of us also later realized that this was a drug-induced highjacking of the reward system of the brain, and did not correspond to any profound insight into the nature of reality. Clearly enough, the hole in a brownie is not the same as emptiness—it isn’t even a good analogy or metaphor for emptiness in the Buddhist sense.  Young however was, and remains, certain that this was exactly what the ancient Buddhist texts must have meant by enlightenment, and that he had a “micro-taste of enlightenment” that day.  His goal became, then, to return to that state of mind-addled euphoric sensory experience.

His strategy for reaching enlightenment, therefore, is to reach a state in which we can experience the world only as a series of intensely pleasant sensory experiences.  Happiness, he insists, must be “independent of conditions,” a point he repeats often.  Young tells us that the “thinking mind and feeling body…become a prison within which most people spend their lives”(42), and the only solution, oddly enough, is to cut out the thinking part and limit ourselves to the sensory.  Although he repeats the tired clichés about the Buddhist concept of impermanence meaning that all reality is mere illusion, the goal of meditation becomes to achieve a state of pure and direct perception of phenomenal reality, unmediated by thought:

When you let impermanence work on you, the energy in its waves an vibrations softens the substance of consciousness, works out knots in your soul…you can feel your senses being scoured by the Flow of impermanence. The cleansing of the doors of perception is not a poetic metaphor, it’s a palpable reality.(115)

Now, I promised not to get too involved in Young’s poor thinking, so I won’t bother unpacking the problems here or elsewhere. The larger point is that his project is one of absolute resignation to the world as it is, in which our only hope of happiness is to limit ourselves to pleasant sensations, which will happen once we can purely and fully perceive the world without any interference of thought.  The similarity to mindfulness in general should be clear enough to readers here; we won’t bother to rehearse the arguments about the impossibility of such “pure perception,” never mind the questionable value of achieving pure and objective perception of an illusion.  (It might also be worth noting that Harris’s model of enlightenment, in Waking Up, also begins with a drug experience, and also passes through convoluted discussion of consciousness and self before concluding that full acceptance of the sensory present is what is meant by awakening).

The goal, for Young as for all the reductivist x-buddhists, is to idealize a state of passive resignation to the current state of affairs.  Any attempt to change our social system, for example, only leads to suffering and oppression, and worse it requires thought, which is the most horrifying thing of all.  We must achieve some kind of resigned indifference to the world in order to be able to perceive even the most unpleasant phenomena as blissful sensory stimuli.

Consider Young’s example of how we might more mindfully interact with another person (I think it is fairly typical of accounts I have heard from dozens of mindfulness teachers):

For example, you can practice meditation while talking to someone…by intently focusing on the sight and sounds of that person…Another way would be to monitor, in a state of high concentration, your mental and emotional reactions to that person…Yet another way…would be to intentionally create loving-kindness emotion in our body, and then taste an expansive flavor of concentration by spreading that pleasant body sensation out into the room, enveloping your interlocutor with love. (35)

The key point here is that we at all costs avoid actually attending to any meaning the person might be trying to convey!  Young repeatedly reminds us to think of words as just sounds, not different from any other sounds, and to think of our emotions as a kind of sensory experience.  So, whether we fully experience the person talking to us by ignoring their meaning and carefully attending to our sensory experiences, or by ignoring them altogether and carefully attending to our internal sensory states, we are reaching enlightenment because we have successfully avoided any dangerous meaningful social exchange—we have skirted the problem of the social and of meaning.  At the same time, we have learned to limit our action in the world to sending out good vibes.

This terror of social interaction sounds a lot like what we might call “autism spectrum,” or perhaps what used to be called schizoid personality disorder (I believe this diagnosis still exists, but those exhibiting the symptoms are now diagnosed as being on the more socially-acceptable autism spectrum).  It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, when in his final chapter Young offers us hope for a surgical enlightenment.  Such non-social solutions are the great hope of all of those unable to successfully interact in the human social world.  My suggestion is that this inability is increasingly the case for most of us; for this reason, we want to be assured that our problems are biological, to be treated with surgery or drugs.  If our problems are social, they might be curable, but that would require both thought and action on our part (including social interaction), something we are taught not only that we should not, but that we cannot really do.

Young’s dream of a sort of sophisticated lobotomy—one capable of removing all those “impurities” of the brain that lead us to do things like engage with others, speak, produce meaning in social interaction—sounds quite similar to the debates about the zombie problem in analytical philosophy.  He offers an example of a kind of brain injury in which someone loses the capacity for self-directed action, and sits doing nothing all day (“No self, no problem!” Young proclaims).  This particular kind of brain injury also tends to make the sufferer indifferent to their surroundings; they never complain of discomfort or boredom, and seem to be devoid of unpleasant sensations.  Young says that this example might indicate that a surgical enlightenment procedure is possible…but there’s something missing. It doesn’t seem to be quite what we’re after.  Just as in the debates about hypothetical zombies in analytical philosophy, the automaton that just responds to stimuli, even if in complex ways, seems to us to be somehow missing something important, even if we can’t quite figure out what it is.  We have the sense that there is a gap between the automaton and a human mind, and we can’t pinpoint exactly where it would be.

This problem is exactly as old as empiricism.  Once philosophy began to conceive of the world in mechanistic terms, as the interaction of physical objects, it became difficult to see how we could include things such as meaning and intention and the felt sense of the world—much less morality or aesthetic appreciation.  The task of philosophy has been the attempt to fill in this gap.  Young fills it in with dualism.  This material world (which he tells us repeatedly is the whole story, the mind just is neurobiology), well, it turns out to be mere illusion after all. The only thing truly and eternally real is something he calls “the Source,” a kind of transcendent soul that has no properties of extension (i.e., no mass or spatial dimension or existence in time), but is what we really and eternally always are.  For Young, and for his students, the contradiction in this position is invisible.  He has transcended duality, he tells us, by accepting absolute radical dualism!  If this seems contradictory or paradoxical, well then you just aren’t as deep as he is I guess.

But for the here and now, the answer is nothing so difficult as escaping the illusory phenomenal world.  We just need that bit about “the Source” to assure us we need not change “conditions,” we can’t change “conditions,” because they are illusions, and we only need to become detached from and indifferent to them.  Enlightenment is nothing but having pure and complete sensory experiences of this (illusory) phenomenal world.  Once we stop adding meaning, or thinking we can make changes in things like social conditions, we can begin to experience all sensory information blissfully, and we just are “classically Enlightened.”

For some people the question “what is enlightenment” might mean something like “how can I meaningfully interact with others and the world” or “how can I transform the conditions of our world so as to reduce suffering.”  Young’s solution is to change the question. Redefine “enlightenment” as “bodily comfort” and the answer becomes easy. In becomes inconceivable that seeking pleasure in these bodily experiences might just be what Buddhist thought was trying to argue was futile.  Instead, we think that when we are happy we “feel” good, so bodily pleasure must be the whole point.  This is a response, though, on the order of “just use a pencil.”  If seems to provide an answer, but only by ignoring the intent of the question.

This “use a pencil” strategy is common to all the reductive x-buddhists.  In Buddha’s Brain, Hanson and Mendius claim that Buddha looked into the “underlying activities of his brain”(12) to discover that we can control our attention in such a way as to produce “blissful concentration.” The brain both is the mind, and is a physical thing capable of being controlled by something additional to itself, a kind of deeper self that is capable of making the brain more “mindful” and insuring bodily comfort. This is possible because…well, there are “mysterious ways”(15) that the “ultimate underpinnings of reality” work.  In Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, we are assured that “we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary…we can experience [the world] directly through our senses” (11), and when we do we can thoroughly focus on our own bodily comfort and stop thinking and acting in any way that isn’t pleasurable.

For centuries now, the problem of how this mechanistic mind-in-the-brain can work has plagued us. It is generally now just dismissed as the insoluble mind-body problem.  Unless we add some magic somewhere, the account seems always to fail.  Despite centuries of trying, every reductive materialist approach needs to resort to some kind of “ghost in the machine” to complete the explanation of actual human thought and behavior.  The neuroscience approach is no different.

Yet we are very attached to it.  As I said earlier, no doubt many readers here will think that I’ve set up a straw-man by debating with something as silly as Shinzen Young’s particular spiritual grift.  Maybe…but I’m not so sure.  I would suggest that if you showed most people one of Young’s many video talks, the response would take one of two forms. Some people would be enamored of his great poetic genius, and gush over how deep and profound he is; but most of the rest would just be bored by him, and see him as offering trite truisms without much substance, too obvious to need repeating.

Few, if any, would react with impatience or outrage at the ideology being reproduced here. And that is because it is an ideology so pervasive we cannot see it at all.  The assumptions underlying Young’s book, and all other reductivist x-buddhisms, are so common we have lost our ability to question them.

But if we fail to question them, we are led inevitably to the same kinds of conclusions.  Specifically, to the idea that the best we can hope for is to adjust ourselves in such a way as to maximize bodily comfort in any conditions.  Because the conditions of our world are just beyond our ability to engage with, much less transform.  

Lockean Empiricism and the Invention of Consciousness and Self.

Most of this particular set of assumptions can be traced back to Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Our fundamental way of thinking about ourselves and the world were first formulated at that time.  Not by Locke alone of course, although his particular formulation of them was enormously influential.  I’m not suggesting here that Locke was a manipulative mastermind who spread wicked delusion and enslaved us all. Rather, the point is simply that Locke found a way to successfully formulate the dominant ideology of his time, an ideology already existing in practice. His very popularity was the result of his producing a discourse in which to conceptualize what everyone (or at least everyone in the rising capitalist class) was already doing. If it is true, as Edward Feser has argued, that “Locke is one of the key architects, maybe the architect, of distinctly modern ways of thinking,” this is because we all accept his fundamental assumptions, so that even if we disagree with Lockean empiricism, we think we can only disagree with it for Lockean empiricist reasons!

I want to offer a short list of some of Locke’s key assumptions (most of them shared by his contemporaries, some given unique form in Locke’s work).  My focus will be on those assumptions about the world that are of most importance to producing the kind of passive and quietist neoliberal ideology we find in the projects of the reductivist x-buddhists.  Then, I will suggest that these assumptions, and so this kind of ideology, is not limited to x-buddhists, but is pervasive in the western world.  Seeing where it comes from, it is hoped, might be a first step in abandoning the prison of hopeless bliss.

The Mechanistic World: For Lockean empiricism, the “real” world is one of matter, and all causality is of the “billiard ball” type.  Anything that can have a cause in the world is physical, and causes are the physical chain of reaction. If we mistakenly believe there are other causes, that is because we have accidentally been caused (by stimuli) to have incorrect associations in our brains.  These errors are on the order of seeing a crow fly overhead just before falling ill, and associating crows with illness.  All non-mechanistic causation is belived to be of this type, and so erroneous.

Absolute Atomism of Mind: Since our brains are physical matter, there are only two sources of thoughts: those derived from sense experience, and those built into the structure of our brain itself (such as the idea that three is more than two).  We derive all of our concepts through sense experience and “reflection,” before beginning to interact with other people (who are just other sensory phenomena to us). Locke takes as a starting point the belief that “individuals pre-exist society and that the individual is to be defined as, by nature, a property owner, albeit first of all the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities…with a natural propensity to unlimited accumulation” (Sanford, xli).  This in large part results from the need to reject the idea that we are produced by the social formation into which we are born—we must be conceived as complete individuals freely choosing to join in the social system we produce through the process of reflection following empirical experience.

Metalanguage: Locke was very insistent that thought is not dependent on language.  We have thoughts, and then put them into words.  Thought continues outside of language, in a kind of mentalese or private language or metalanguage.  This is crucial, because if our minds are atomistic, each one acquiring content by sensory interaction with the world, it is imperative that no ideas ever originate in social practices.  Many analytical philosophers still hold this position, and most people assume this is true in their daily lives.  Almost all students will say that they “know what they want to say,” but “can’t put it into words.”  Most people, and not just x-buddhists, will insist that language is a “barrier” between them and the world, distorting their pure and correct experience.  On the Lockean model, we all develop concepts, and languages, individually, then enter into a group by simply learning which word everyone else uses to refer to the concept we all derived from experience.  Individually, we all would have correct empirical knowledge of the world, but the demands of a shared language causes confusion and distortion. The idea that our construal of the world comes from language, that when we learn language we learn how to see the world, is ruled out without consideration.

Fatalism about the social system: We all accept that we cannot make changes to the social formation in which we live.  This follows from the point about atomism of minds.  We must be thought of as individual minds-in-brains created inevitably by sensory experiences, which will then naturally interact in the way such physical entities naturally would.  For Locke, this is crucial because if the goal is to remove the old social system produced by religion and feudalism, we wouldn’t want to suggest that we might rationally choose the best one for everyone.  Instead, we need to be convinced that the old order is a matter of mistaken associations leading to confusion, and the removing those errors leads inevitably to a free and natural society of competitive and acquisitive possessive individuals.  We can’t make a social system, we can only clarify our sensory information so as to adjust more successfully to the naturally occurring one.  For Locke, “free will” becomes simply a matter of removing the impediments to a correct response to stimuli.  Most Americans today are sure this is true: capitalism is a result of human nature, the economy is not a humanly created social practice but a force of nature we must adjust ourselves to.

There’s a lot more to Locke’s enormous Essay, but these are the key points for our discussion.  Clearly, these assumptions underly all the reductive X-buddhisms.  But just as clearly, these assumptions always lead to a kind of impossible contradiction.  There seems no way to get from empiricism to the human world as it actually is without allowing in some magical leap. Often, this takes the form of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand sometimes referred to as the homunculus problem; Hume famously pointed this out in his postscript to his Treatise.  Most people resort to “it’s just a grammatical necessity, not a contradiction,” but Hume had the intelligence and the nerve to admit it isn’t really—it’s a conceptual flaw.  I won’t go through all the arguments against such materialist reductionists—there are many powerful examples dismantling this belief in addition to Hume’s.  The response is usually of the “I use a pencil” variety: we can’t explain how the brain gives rise to such things as moral values or untrue beliefs, so we just say it has the power to do so, and leave it at that.

Locke was not quite happy to accept the “I use a pencil answer,” so he came up with a related but somewhat more complicated strategy.  He produced some key ideological concepts, necessary to his system, and convinced us all these were real things in the world in need of further clarification to fill in the gaps. Sort of like explaining the world as the creation of God, then spending centuries trying to decide just what kind of thing God really is.

Locke did believe in God, and a soul, but his empiricist philosophy wouldn’t work if he pushed the explanation to that level.  So he came up with the two related (and crucially, necessarily vague) concepts that have plagued us ever since: Consciousness and Self.

This might be startling at first. We all think these terms have been around forever, they simply must pick out something in the world (after all, we intuitively accept Locke’s theory of language, and can’t consider that a word might arise except by indicating a thing).  But they haven’t been around forever.  Both terms were neologisms in Locke’s work.  Neologisms he was forced into because there was no such concept available, and he needed something more to complete his philosophical system.  Before Locke, nobody ever thought they had a self, or that they were conscious—at least not in exactly the way we mean these things.

In Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness, Etienne Balibar details the invention of these concepts.  He explains that these concepts were part of Locke’s “anti-linguistic ‘turn’”: “Locke attempts here to square the circle, by forging a generic expression for self-reference in the first person which the self may make use of in order to think itself (or objectify itself) without leaving itself”(116).  The concept functions to resolve what is otherwise a fatal flaw in Locke’s system, and to enable the individual to remain atomistic, originating by interacting with a sensory (but never a social) world.  This concept was at first troubling to Locke’s readers and translators (no such concept seems to have appeared in other European languages, so the need to invent terms to translate self and consciousness arose).  But it didn’t take long before we all began using and thinking in these terms, without ever considering that we have no idea what we are saying when we use them.

In fact, it became the task of analytical philosophy to attempt to endlessly work at keeping these problematic terms, which we might call floating signifiers, from collapsing under the weight of their own meaninglessness.  And so we still see endless books and articles trying to discuss the real nature of “self” or “consciousness,” never making much progress, because they continue to mistake an ideological term for a thing in the mind-independent world, something we already have before we even notice that we do, and that we just need to work to get clear about, like a kidney or a brainstem.

Before moving on to some conclusions about how non-reductivist Buddhist thought might just help with this problem, let me offer one clear example from the American analytical philosophy to demonstrate how widespread and invisible this problem is.

Searle’s Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

John Searle has argued in a series of books over the past decade or so that he has radically revised the “traditional categories” in which philosophy has debated the mind-body problem.  In Mind: a brief introduction, he argues that if we eliminate talk of separate mental and physical domains, and realize that “consciousness is entirely causally explained by neural behavior but it is not thereby shown to be nothing but neuronal behavior”(119), then the entire problem is overcome.  He thinks this has avoided the great error of dualism as well as the intractable problems of reductivism, because the key point is that the mind just is exactly the state of the brain, but cannot be reduced to the brain.  And he manages this essentially by linguistic fiat: to reduce the mind to the brain is to talk about a something with first-person ontology in terms of third-person ontology, so it can’t be done.

Now, just as with Shinzen Young, I can already hear people proclaiming that I’m debating wth the weakest possible opponent, because this argument has flaws any philosopher worth listening to could point out instantly.  Of course it does. What could it possibly mean to say that something is identical to something else, but not reducible to it?  This is just sophistry.  The only way it could fail to be reducible is if there is some additional thing we mean by mind besides the brain state.  For example, a table is in one sense identical to the wood it is made of, but we can’t reduce it to the wood because the wood itself, absent the table-shape, wouldn’t be a place we can sit and have dinner.  There must be an added social function that prevents this reduction—and the “first person ontology” is just that, something in addition to the brain itself that occurs only in a social context (there could be no first-person quality if there were no other persons).  By discussing it in terms of “first-person ontology,” Searle is able to avoid this social dimension, and keep his concept of mind thoroughly reductivist, atomistic, and Lockean.

However, my point is that Searle’s arguments have an enormous following, and seem true and solid to most people. And this is because he has not really radically changed the terms of the debate at all. He has stuck quite closely to Locke’s terms throughout.  And Locke’s terms remain the terms in which most of us think about the world most of the time; they are the concepts of common sense.

Searle says that consciousness and intentionality (which are very close to the same thing, he tells us) are unique in that they are the only kinds of things in existence with a first-person ontology (120).  That alone might raise some flags. But he says, after two chapters and over 70 pages discussing “consciousness,” that

[o]f all the subjects discussed in this book, this is the one where I feel the greatest sense of inadequacy.  Consciousness is such a stunning and mysterious phenomenon that one always feels that the very effort to describe it in ordinary words somehow is not only bound to fail, but the very effort reveals a failure of sensibility. (157)

Perhaps the trouble is the attempt to explain an ideological concept as if it were a material thing?

He discusses free will, and can only decide there is a gap between the causes of our actions and the actions, and so the “problem of free will is going to be with us for a long time”(234). He discusses “self” in thoroughly Lockean terms, even defining his concept in its difference from Descartes, and focusing on the problem of “personal identity,” and concludes that “in order to account for free rational actions, we have to suppose there is a single entity X”(295).  The argument is that since free will, which we can’t explain, must exist, we must have some kind of a self, which we also can’t explain.

And in the end, we are left only with an answer on the order of “I use a pencil.”  If there is this gap between material causation and our actions, the solution is that there must be “the capacity to initiate action, a capacity sometimes called ‘agency'”(296).  If we just say it’s a “capacity” we have, that is supposed to explain everything, but in fact that is the very thing that is need of explaining!  As always, when we try to explain the human world in reductive materialist terms, we have to eventually include some “and then a miracle happens” step at some point. Most often, this is done with rhetorical sleight-of-hand; at least Searle spells it out openly.

Searle, like Young, is enamored of neuroscience, and sure that advances in neuroscience will solve all these mysteries.  Both adopt what seems to me an almost universal assumptions: neuroscience is a new science, and so we must wait for slow progress and the answer will come probably long after we are dead—it is just that complex.  Science, most people think, proceeds by slow and methodical building up of facts.  Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the history of science knows that’s never how it works.  It is always the other way around: first we solve the big problem, then comes the slow and methodical work of filling in the details.  First we grasp that the Sun is at the center of the solar system, then begins the difficult methodical work of exactly calculating the orbits of the planets.  This kind of bottom-up work toward the big answer is just waving a promissory note to avoid dealing with a conceptual failure.

And Searle’s project is Lockean, and neoliberal, in the overall goals as well as in the details.  He wants to explain that we can only “cope with the world”(192), and to rule out considerations of how we might change it.  In his book Making the Social World his insists that the most “fundamental set of basic facts are the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology,” and no explanation of anything social will be accepted unless is begins with and is “derived from the mental phenomena of individuals.” As with Locke, we must always assume that individual subjects precede social systems, which occur because these atomistic individuals interact in a way analogous to atoms and molecules interacting in matter.

There seems, in American analytical philosophy at least, no possibility of questioning these key Lockean assumptions, no matter how troublesome they prove.  The work of philosophy is to assume we must endlessly discuss consciousness and self, circling them again and again but never getting closer; this is a reactionary project, to keep these empty terms at work obscuring the ideological nature of our construal of the world.  If we questioned them, we might move out of the kind of fatalist neoliberal ideology that has enslaved us all to a pursuit of blissful sensations.  And we wouldn’t want that.  Someone might start suggesting we can enjoy taking action in the world, that the capacity to act is more important that the capacity to passively perceive…and consume.  And then where would capitalism be?

Avoiding Translation

It seems that all of x-buddhism, like analytical philosophy, is not much more than one more version of Lockean capitalist ideology.  What gets x-buddhists more worked up than the insistence that we can get outside of language?  Or claims that pure perception untainted by social meaning is the source of profound truth?  But for most of the history of Buddhism, the use of language in rigorous philosophical debate was considered the main route to enlightenment.  The whole history of Buddhist thought and practice, it seems, is just incompatible with modern capitalist ideologies of the subject—so it needs to be ditched or rewritten.  If we want the exotic flavor of ancient wisdom to give credence to a shaky ideology (and it seems we do) we need to be sure we don’t actually consider whether that ancient wisdom might not have been producing the capitalist ideological concepts we are so thoroughly indoctrinated in.  Then we wind up as enlightened brains, enjoying out brownies, and answering all questions at the level of “I use a pencil.”  The inability to think is the basic condition of “clarity” and “equanimity,” the brownie is a taste of enlightenment.

One way to ensure we stay firmly within (and blind to) our ideology is with translation.  X-buddhists will argue passionately about whether anatman is best translated as not-self, no-self or non-self, but they would never consider that the term atman might not have meant “self” at all, that Buddha might not have been thinking in these thoroughly modern, thoroughly capitalist, Lockean concepts.  The same goes for consciousness—a problematic term in translations of Buddhist texts, just as it is in Western philosophy.  But maybe vinnana didn’t mean the same thing as we mean by consciousness at all; perhaps there was a concept the term indicated, and it wasn’t just an empty placeholder meant to fill in the gap in the capitalist ideology of the subject?  When we translate these texts into terms central to our own ideology, we are doing nothing but reproducing our ideology and pretending its problems are the same ones all cultures have wrestled with.  Maybe the alternative is to avoid such unquestioned translations into unclear and ideologically loaded terms, and instead to work to figure how thinkers in a radically different culture might have construed the world.

To offer just one example from much closer to our world than the Pali canon or Nagarjuna, consider Spearing’s translation of the fourteenth-century English text on meditation, “The Cloud of Unknowing.”  Spearing translates from the original Middle English, and uses the term “consciousness.”  But he points out in a note that no such term, or concept, existed in the fourteenth century.  As he says, “no single modern term corresponds” to the original term, which was mynde.  The concept indicated by this term is not what we mean by mind, nor what we mean by consciousness, but something along the lines of a collection of “faculties of the soul,” including memory.  The use of the term consciousness, I would suggest, works to translate the entire contents of this texts into our contemporary ideological language.  But what if we just learn to read it in the original, without a translation?  Middle English isn’t all that alien, and we can even learn to think in its pre-capitalist concepts in a fairly short time.  Perhaps we can, by doing this, learn to think in concepts different from our own, and get some space from our conceptual imprisonment in the Lockean ideology of the subject.

We might try a similar thing with Buddhism. Young devotes a great deal of discussion to the terms consciousness and self, but he just assumes that they are things that exist in the world and the task is to find out what they “really” are.  The result is that he winds up in a morass of absurd new-age gibberish.  Worse, his followers pretend to follow this nonsense, and are convinced they are having pure and language-free perceptions.  And in the end, they become good neoliberal subject, so desperate to resign themselves to the inevitability of our social system that they are as eager as Young is for their enlightenment-lobotomies!

What if, instead, we made it our practice to question such obviously ideological concepts, and to explore concepts in Buddhist texts that don’t have any correspondence in our language? This would not free us from all ideology, but would produce a new ideological position from within which we might be able to question the dominant position.  This is not an attempt to get outside of language into pure perception, but an attempt to work completely within language, recognizing that there is nothing human outside of, or prior to, the social.  Typically, we try to take Buddhist texts and find some strategy to make them reproduce our preferred capitalist ideology—for instance, Stephen Batchelor’s “hermeneutic strategy” to translate the Pali canon into a replica of that great 20th-century capitalist ideologue, Richard Rorty.  This serves to retread an unconvincing ideology by pleasantly coating it with the seductive allure of ancient Eastern profundity.  What such acts of translation or interpretation always seem to miss is that they are pretending to be culturally neutral or free of ideology, while resting on completely culture-bound assumptions.  These assumptions are so foundational it is difficult to imagine that they are culturally constructed at all.  And the same thing happens in the field of analytical philosophy.  Searle adopts Locke’s floating signifiers with absolutely no awareness of when or why these vague concepts were invented. He repeatedly insists he wants to set aside the limiting concepts of tradition and “just try to state the facts” objectively. But what he can see as a fact is constructed by the Lockean assumptions he cannot begin to question. In analytically philosophy, the goal is always to steer clear of real-world application, but I would suggest that if Searle’s philosophy of mind were ever put into any kind of practice, that practice would look an awful lot like what Shinzen Young is teaching.  If we want to stop blindly reproducing these same empiricist problems, maybe we should stop translating, and start using the troubling impossibility of translation as a wedge to prize open our own ideological prison.

Now, I don’t consider myself an “enlightened” being, and I know that my concept of what it would mean to be enlightened is a particular and unusual one. I don’t want to argue that reductivist x-buddhists have no right to the word “enlightened” and can’t call the pursuit of thought-free pleasant bodily sensation enlightenment if they want.  I don’t really even much care what various schools of Buddhism meant by the term in the past–at least, I don’t care to decide on which such definition is the “right” one. (It might be a useful exercise to try to grasp the function of terms for enlightenment in different schools of Buddhism, though).

What I do want to suggest is, regardless of whether the reductivist x-buddhists are correct about what “classical enlightenment” might have been, we should think carefully about whether it is the kind of thing we want today.  It might work out fine to be a consuming atomistic self, so long as somebody’s supplying the brownies.  But look around folks, we’re running out of brownies.

Personally, I’d prefer to become the kind of subject capable of engaging with the world so as to transform it, able to see that meaning is socially constructed in language and social practices, and that we can collectively transform them.  So, how do we do this?

Well, to begin with, it would take someone a lot better than I am at making these kinds of problems clear to more people.  If any agency is necessarily collective, real work on changing the world can’t begin until enough people have come to see their way out of the constraints of these Lockean concepts of the world.

Of course, after such a clearing of the ground, we’d need to produce some ideological practice in which to begin to act.  Right now, we seem to have only ideological practices in which we adapt resignedly to ever increasing misery.  We can only decide between pencils and pens, but never write a different story.


Brownie, anyone?



Works Cited

Balibar, Etienne.  Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness.  Verso, 2013.

Feser, Edward.  Locke.  Oneworld Publications, 2007.

Hanson, Rick and Richard Mendius, M.D. Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom.  New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Harris, Sam.  Waking Up: A Guide to Spiritualty Without Religion.  Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Sandford, Stella.  “The Incomplete Locke: Balibar, Locke and the Philosophy of the Subject.”  In Identity and Difference by Etienne Balibar.  Verso, 2013.  pp. xl-xlvi.

Searle, John R.  Mind: a brief introduction.  Oxford University Press, 2004.

Spearing, A.C. Editor and Translator.  The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works.  Penguin, 2001.

Williams, Mark and Danny Penman.  Mindfulness: And Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  Rodale, 2012.

Young, Shinzen.  The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works.  Sounds True, 2016.

53 thoughts on “Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?

  1. Thanks for posting this piece, Tom. It is jam-packed with important issues; difficult but crucial issues which, one would think, keep all of those wise and compassionate x-buddhist teachers awake at night. In particular, I have in mind the most general, and pervasive, point you make; namely, that current x-buddhist teachers are acting as unwitting hacks, docile servants, and ventriloquized replicators of a form of neoliberal life that is, or should be, repugnant to them. Worse, it is a form of life that their most militant x-buddhist concepts and practices are poised to counter. Yet, I cannot name a single contemporary x-buddhist figure who even attempts to draw out the militant potential of their precious spiritualized x-buddhism. You sketch such possibilities here and elsewhere. The question is whether the people who have assumed the mantle of x-buddhist teacher today–people like Shinzen Young–have sunk too deeply into the “morass of absurd new-age gibberish” to engage such work, or whether it’s up to a new generation of thinkers to do so.

    The decisive difference would be that this new generation of thinkers would somehow avoid the two cliffs you mention: that of being “enamored of [the] great poetic genius” of the likes of Shinzen Young, and that of seeing such figures “as offering trite truisms without much substance, too obvious to need repeating.” These thinkers, rather, “would react with impatience or outrage at the ideology being reproduced here.” Imagine if the people currently shaping x-buddhism would be able to perceive the manner and extent to which they have personally absorbed neoliberal values (along with Lockean empiricism with its notions of consciousness and self, etc.), and consequently deploy their x-buddhism in the service of these values. Imagine if just a handful of them woke up one morning and realized that they have been functioning as agents of delusion, collusion, conservative reaction, and obscurantism, rather than of insight, clarity, courage, and freedom, as they seem to believe.

    This brings me to the last point I’ll make for now. It is a very personal point for me. It is indeed easy to resign oneself to the fact that Buddhism has simply been re-incarnated in the contemporary West as an intellectually shallow form of thought and ethically bankrupt form of practice. I know many smart people of integrity who have come to that conclusion, and subsequently abandoned x-buddhism. But, the problem is–and this is one of your points–we have all become neoliberal subjects, whether we are philosophers, activists, marxists, writers or whatever. I have personally experienced how even marxist and social activist communities are permeated by the kind of thinking that Shinzen Young displays. So, I have come to the conclusion that since virtually everything we touch “serves to produce a pernicious kind of neoliberal ideology,” as you say, it does not matter where we start pulling the thread. You will eventually unravel to the (current) core: neoliberalism. You will work through many knots that serve to resist the very unravelling–i.e., the very possibility of ideological transparency and institutional change. It doesn’t matter where you begin. Supposedly sophisticated philosophy is as good a place to begin as New Age gibberish. X-buddhism is a good a place to do the work as overtly political material. What is being revealed is not, in the final instance, the surface matter. What is being revealed is that which has lodged itself in that matter and become its usurper. So, x-buddhist teachers like Shinzen Young (and God knows we could name many, many more right here) move their lips, but the decidedly unwise, uncompassionate neoliberal master does the speaking.

    One of the most persistent claims made by this x-buddhist-neoliberalist is, of course, “the idea that the best we can hope for is to adjust ourselves in such a way as to maximize bodily comfort in any conditions; [b]ecause the conditions of our world are just beyond our ability to engage with, much less transform.” From a new book that I recommend to readers of this blog: David Chandler and Julian Reid, The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation, and Vulnerability:

    [In neoliberal societies] the area of the individual’s transformative activity is essentially reduced to a disciplining of the inner self…The psychic inner life of the subject, and the social milieus through which it is seen to be constructed and influenced, become the sphere of transformation in order to develop the faculties of resilience and adaptive efficiency held to be necessary to respond to external environments more securely. In this way, neoliberal frameworks reduce the cognitive and psychic life to a domain of insecurity. In effect, human subjectivity itself, the ideational, cognitive, and practical contexts of its reproduction and the psychic life of the subject especially, become problematized as dangerous.

    The reason that “the area of the individual’s transformative activity is essentially reduced to a disciplining of the inner self” is, of course, because the individual no longer believes in the possibility of social and institutional change. As you point out, that belief has been nullified and replaced with the rhetoric of figures like Shinzen Young, rhetoric that is run through with the, typically unstated, assumption that we can only ever truly act on “consciousness.” I don’t mind going on record as saying that every single x-buddhist figure out there today, from Alan Wallace to Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the traditional Zennies to the supposedly secular and progressive Batchelorites and mindfulnistas, is teaching this pernicious capitalist doctrine. Of course, speaking about these figures in this manner will probably insure that we won’t hear from any of them. But I am with Laruelle here: “to really place [their neoliberal x-buddhism] in question, we must invalidate it in one blow and without remainder.” That way, only the most courageous of them will engage.

    Finally, I read your text as being a programmatic challenge. It places the non-buddhism project on fresh ground. As I’ve said, it’s not really, and certainly not ultimately, a non-buddhism project. It’s a social and political project. Here’s the challenge and the work to be done:

    But maybe vinnana didn’t mean the same thing as we mean by consciousness at all; perhaps there was a concept the term indicated, and it wasn’t just an empty placeholder meant to fill in the gap in the capitalist ideology of the subject? When we translate these texts into terms central to our own ideology, we are doing nothing but reproducing our ideology and pretending its problems are the same ones all cultures have wrestled with. Maybe the alternative is to avoid such unquestioned translations into unclear and ideologically loaded terms, and instead to work to figure how thinkers in a radically different culture might have construed the world…

    What if, instead, we made it our practice to question such obviously ideological concepts, and to explore concepts in Buddhist texts that don’t have any correspondence in our language? This would not free us from all ideology, but would produce a new ideological position from within which we might be able to question the dominant position.

  2. Glenn,
    The Chandler and Reid book looks interesting–but I’ve been hesitant to read it because I’m concerned it might once again diagnose this problem but offer no alternative. Of course, I’m all for pointing out the problem, particularly when most people fail to see it…but I find myself too often succumbing to the neoliberal subject position these days, and seeing the problem everywhere does make it seem a bit more ineluctable. I’m not sure I can bear one more restatement of the problem (although I’ve kind of offered one here) without some example of an attempt to struggle against it.
    For instance, I find it hard to seriously consider that there might be a new generation of thinkers able to break free of the sheer stupidity of the currently dominant generation. Not just in x-buddhism, but in literature and philosophy and yes even marxist politics (look at my review of “Crowds and Parties” on Lines of Flight–even in communist theory the neoliberalism is impenetrable). I can’t see anything much to do but this kind of thing–just point out the problem and give fairly tame suggestions as to where we might take a first step toward a new ideology. Maybe it will take somebody more thoroughly outside the system than I am to make some substantial progress on this.
    Philosophy, at lest in the U.S., is on it deathbed, reduced to teaching ethics classes for business and health science departments, where ethics is taken to mean nothing more than “what can I legally get away with.” Literature departments have given up on anything but reading young adult bestsellers and graphic novels to inculcate a postmodern neoliberalism that really doesn’t need further help from any kind of classroom. Political science is reduced to opinion polls and analysis of campaign strategies, no longer engaged in questions of human liberation or justice.
    While pointing out the obvious stupid reactionary ideology of popular culture does seem a bit pointless, I don’t know where to even look for other people interested in thinking about such things, much less doing something about them.

  3. Hi Tom,

    I don’t see your problem here. If your position is that we are always only ever within ideology and if ideology is always a set of social practices, isn’t it the case that we are always completely engaged in ideology and in social practice? As you say in your essay on the Party, it is the ideological practice which interpellates a bodily individual and creates a subject and not the other way around. There is no atomised subject who exists outside of ideology who tries to invent a new ideology or recapture an old one to “fit” his actual condition.

    In other words our condition includes this attempt to formulate a true ideology; true in the sense that our ideas emerge within our actual situation as a “gestalt” in which one moves from practice to theory to practice on the “wing” as it were, within an immanent situation …what Laruelle calls “lived experience” and what Marx called “sensuous human practice”. (thesis on Feuerbach)

    If that is true we are already engaged “prior” to our formulation of a particular set of ideas about our situation; our ideas are an integral aspect of our “material” condition…the set of social relations in which we “find” our “being” or in which we “allow” ourselves to be interpellated. I think Althusser, in an aside in his ISA essay, was pointing to this immanent “materiality” of ideas.

    I can understand that one might want to find a situation in which a more articulate group of individuals are engaged with a more sophisticated set of ideas…if that’s the case there are a huge amount of structured situations which allow such interaction…left parties, trade unions, single issue organisation, local community action groups, ecological campaigns , rights campaigns, academic associations , journals etc, all of which are engaged in an actual lived theory/practice conjunction. Isn’t it out of such already existing oppositional social practices that a new ideological practice can emerge?

    Of course another option exists – to engage ideas on a theoretical level (not necessarily academic); a practice of reading and creating texts which aims at producing a non-positivistic “science” of the situation. From my point of view that is clearly what Laruelle, Badiou, Zizek and many other contemporary thinkers are doing, following the immanent logic of their own trajectory of thought. One can do this within or outside any structured situation (academy, party,) but not outside of a social/ideological practice.

    I suppose a good example for Marxists might be the role Marx played in the first International or the emergence of the Bolshevik faction out of the milieu of Russian Social Democracy. The entry of Trotsky into the Bolshevik faction at a relatively late stage might be good case of “choosing an interpellation” on the basis of an attempt at a non – positivist immanent science.

    All and all then I don’t see your problem. Unless, like me, you are beginning to suffer from the general winding down or lack of physical energy or “depression” which is the inevitable effect of age on the biological individual. Fortunately, such an individual is the necessary condition for an active, energetic, thinking subject. Nature has provided the perfect antidote to the dictatorship of the person over the party, the academy or the social… the death of the biological individual. Or maybe you intuit a darker truth— the possibility that our species might have taken a wrong turn and inadvertently found itself at a dead end of its own making, resulting in the death of a civilization, a species or even a life-sustaining planet, always a possibility given the fact of the intransigent.

    In any case, you can do what you seem to be made for— theorise. In fact, isn’t that what you do, despite the apparent shambles we call the World? A sort of resurgence of optimism despite the inevitable ruin of bodies and civilisations. Laruelle calls this the “insistence” of the Stranger-Subject over and against the “common sense” of “existence” or the “World”, or what Althusser called the dominant ideology ; a transcendental possibility that allows one to be radically immanent within the situation while never wholly overcome by its particular formulation in thought. An excess of the human, if you like, that is not an essence or an absence but an apriori axiom of an immanent “science”. What Marx called a praxis, or a “practice of thought”.

  4. Yes, you don’t see my problem here. That’s kind of my point–I am apparently not able to make the problem clear. So I wait for someone else who might be better able to do so.

    The fact that we are always engaged in ideological practices is not really at issue. The point is that the only such practices available right now are reactionary ones. It isn’t a matter of sophistication of ideas–reactionary practices can be based on quite stupid ideas, like Young’s, or on articulate and sophisticated ones, like Searle’s. There just are no oppositional practices, not a single practice that is not endorsed by capital and engaged in adjusting individuals to the great god “economy.” In the US, the communist party went all out to campaign for Obama’s Goldman-Sachs administration. They were silent about Sanders, but are now supporting Clinton. And it isn’t just politics. And it I’m not willling to fall back on the “getting old, agency is a young man’s game” excuse.

    Here, I hoped to remove two concpetual obstacles to correct understanding of the world—because correct understanding of the world is necessary for an ideological practice that is not reactionary neoliberalism. I hoped to encourage people to reexamine the attachment to the floating signifiers “consciousness” and “self,” so that practice can begin to deal with real bodily individuals not non-existent empty terms. And I hoped ot encourage people not to be duped by bad sophistry liek Searle’s “first-person ontology” argument, for the same reason.

    No doubt I did not make either of those points clearly enough, and no doubt I did not explain well enough exaclty why these to errors are so serious. Actually, I expected to fail yet again…but perhaps fail a bit better. No doubt I will also at some point be compelled to repeat this same failure.

    And perhaps someday someone smarter, more articulate, maybe even more likeable (whatever that means) might see the point, and make it in a way that succeeds in incorporating other individuals in this particular truth…and produces some ideology founded on that truth….

  5. “The fact that we are always engaged in ideological practices is not really at issue. The point is that the only such practices available right now are reactionary ones….There just are no oppositional practices, not a single practice that is not endorsed by capital and engaged in adjusting individuals to the great god “economy.”

    I cant really believe that, but even if it were so, why would that be a problem. You continue to theorise, despite the apparent pointlessness of doing so. I think if it came to it and the life of the species itself was put into question (and maybe we will reach that point quite soon) you would still want to know why it came to that and still value thinking, culture, people, despite the annihilation to come.

    My point is that our thinking is not outside of our situation; even though we can theorise an object – economy, social relation, history whatever– we are immanent as a thinking subject/bodily individual. I have struggled for a long time with Badious thought but one thing I have gleaned from him is this possibility- although we can theorise an object – what he calls knowledge – we can also “occupy” a truth. But not as an act of will. Strangely Badiou claims the opposite –that the void , in the form of an eruption, an event, occupies us so that, even against our will, we become the subject of a truth.

    Even though the “world” seems to be about to be overcome by problems and its true that you can become sickened almost to death by the pointless suffering which capitalism imposes on billions. If, on the other hand, the truth of that suffering comes to occupy you, you will act appropriately when the time to act arises. You only have to hope it comes sooner rather than later. Meanwhile you “trust in God and keep your powder dry” while continuing with the little acts that are a prelude to the big one.

    I’m not being facetious. I still don’t see your problem. You have your truth and your practice, no?
    If the world failed to “actualise” your truth would it be any less a truth? I don’t think so since the opposite is the case. You, as a subject, are actualised by the truth into a world. Its a sort of “grace” albeit a decimated one. Nevertheless it has its own immanent joy, not of the “world” to be sure but no less real for that. In fact it is because it is not of the world that it is real and prior to the world. In other words you “have your own reward” as the Man said, and riches to boot. Which is why great old Spinoza died peacefully in his armchair. I, for one, am happy living up Shit Creek.

    Finally, I don’t know why you in particular are on the end of my sudden optimism. I might be going senile. Apologies.

  6. I’m responding to you comment at 3 by the way and not your post which, as Glenn says, is jam packed with vital issues. I agree.

  7. Patrick wrote:

    “If, on the other hand, the truth of that suffering comes to occupy you, you will act appropriately when the time to act arises. You only have to hope it comes sooner rather than later.”

    The way I see Tom’s point is that the current neoliberal ideology is essentially not capable of ‘creating’ a subject that can do what is needed and make the changes we can arise too. I fall into ‘hoping’ the revolution comes and being ready go. However, my hope is probably an example of me being a subject (a bad one) of capitalism that literally can’t make change.

  8. But Craig, you can make change.

    Its the very thought of individual impotence that produces the “bad” subject because it naturalises the situation we find ourselves in by creating a gap between theory and practice, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the individual and the collective. We have the capacity to think an object— to objectify – and that is absolutely essential to methodical thinking and practice (science for example) but the act of objectifying is a human capacity resting on a biological entity(the brain) and a social context which provides the “content”, the “material” on which thinking “works”… What Laruelle calls the “World “or “givenness” The world is “given” in the sense that it confronts us as an object, an out-thereness. But the world, givenness, subjectivity, objectivity are all given -without- givenness prior to our objectification of it and inclusive of that mode of thinking; that transcendental capacity to think the object (or the subject) is enfolded within the Real we are as individual lived experience.

    Maybe that sounds too convoluted and obscurely philosophical but its absolutely essential to any radical practice to see that we always think as bodily individuals within a concrete social context revolving about the relation to production—to the collective activity which provides us with the means of living as more that bodily individuals— as humans; in other words within a made culture, social system, economic mode and meaningful context — a World

    We can change the “world” because, despite the complex nature of the “system” it is always only our own actions as a species that produces it. If we start from our lived experience as bodily individuals already at the heart of the “world” then everything we do as subjects is a work on the world or a practice . It only requires that we hone our capacity to do that in ways that engage oppressive and limiting structures. You can always start there in your concrete situation because your concrete situation is the actualisation of the myriad social, economic and cultural entities and processes which “produce” us as Subjects, as worldly beings confronting a world we think we cannot change. Of course we are always already the subject and object of change or Real Undivided Humans prior to our thought of ourselves.

    I’m sure there is an easier way to say all this but I haven’t found it.

  9. Craig,

    Just one more thought that might help clarify what I mean.

    We always make our own way in the world because, as bodily individuals within a concrete situation (social, political, cultural, collectively made) we make ourselves and are made in a dynamic process of thinking and doing. We are this or that subject at this or that time or within this or that concrete situation. All of this is a porous, changefull and evolving dynamic which we experience as life, as living in all of its cognitive and affective modes. We live on and from the inside as it were.

    But all of this –- subject (I) objects (You, He. She, It) and the World (It, They, the System, Economy, politics etc) in which subjects and object have their being are enfolded in a greater context which Laruelle calls the Real. The Real is prior to but inclusive of the world. Its not some hidden realm, some deep essence, vital energy or transcendent other— its the always already given which we objectify as the subjects and objects that “occupy” our World. But, in fact, It (the Real) “occupies” us as the lived experience which we seem to receive as a mysterious gift, never having asked to be “born” as bodily individuals or into a particular “world” such as this one. Out of that lived experience we collectively constitute the subjects and object which “inhabit” our world. These subjects and objects are real in two senses, firstly as lived experience and secondly as objective structures or collective habitual modes which have their own “laws” of development which we can think, and upon which we can act for the better..

    We can change our world because, from our point of view, we are at its heart as an unmoving centre. From there we can observe all of the changeful relations and interdependencies which make up the “out-thereness” or “objectivity” of the World. The Real holds all of that in “being” . We can only think this Real as a last instance or transcendental axiom. In other words the Real never leaves itself to become an object for itself.

    Shit, maybe that not a clarification at all. I wish I could do better since what Im trying to say makes all the difference to the way we experience that confrontation with the “out-thereness” of the world. We can experience the world as an alien otherness (a sort of nihilism of the object) or as an impersonal objectivity( just the way things are) or as the actuality of our own collective activity in which we are always already involved—as the intimacy of our own lived experience. All of these perspectives are ideological ways of seeing but the last one is the one capable of delivering a subject who is hopeful, optimistic but realistic about our collective prospects.

    Hope that hasn’t tied you up in gobbledigook. This stuff is hard shit to get your head around but absolutely essential to sanity, individual happiness and a sane world.

  10. RE 9: “Maybe that sounds too convoluted and obscurely philosophical”

    Well, yes, and a little bit like Oprah: only you can change the world, once you make up your mind to do it!

    The easier way to say it would be to suggest even one specific example of a “radical practice” in a “concrete social context.”

    I don’t have any suggestions myself, beyond “stop trying to lobotomize yourselves.”

    RE 3: Just to clarify my statement about the book Glenn mentioned (The Neoliberal Subject): while I’m hesitant, I no doubt will eventually summon the energy to read it. Having looked into the authors a bit, and skimmed a couple of chapters, I expect that it can offer insight into the problem that would never occur to me on my own, and knowledge of the situation that might be of use in figuring out what to do about it. But the subject is collective, and living in near isolation in the Trump-loving Tea Party capital of New England, it gets harder every day to resist becoming part of the neoliberal subject. So sometimes knowing more about the problem just makes it seem more intractable.

  11. RE 14:

    Tom said:

    ”I’m reminded why I stopped writing on blogs years ago. No intelligent life out there.”

    How stupid is that! Certainly an error in logic and ad hominem too. Let me explain: one cannot know from a couple of stupid comments that there isn’t some intelligent readers anyway. So does your comment mean that you don’t care to write for general public, only for the most intelligent people? Or only that I am too stupid to get a decent answer from you? I get the kind of feeling I sometimes get when trying to have a meaningful interaction with a meditation teacher.

    Instead of picking the most easy target of sitting in crossroads or talking to mailman, how about answering my propositions of:

    a) hosting a meditation group focusing on uncovering ideologies of peoples experiences / thoughts / emotions…

    b) doing something like Edward Snowden, if one is in a kind of a position?

    …or how about answering to some of Patricks more challenging propositions?

    If Tom is not up to task, I’d like to have some views on these from someone else. I’m honestly trying to get some views if either of these are worth doing. Do you see any value in Snowdens actions, for example? And actually I would like to have some other people’s views too, not only Tom’s.

    P.S. My first answer was formatted differently when published. When I wrote it, I separated my propositions with numbers and paragraphs – a numbered list. There were four distinct propositions, but somehow the formatting was gone in the process of publishing.

  12. I’m kind of sorry I posted this essay at all. This is the way the internet goes, though. A few commenters will always be able to hijack comment boards with thousands of words of irrelevant personal attacks and repeated insistence that the post is pointless and shouldn’t be read.

    For now, I’ll just block irrelevant comments. If anyone has anything to say about the problem addressed in the post, please feel free. I have heard from a few people by email, reluctant to comment because of all the nonsense on the comment boards. That’s fine, too.

    I expect it may be necessary to just turn off comments, though.

    RE 12: Yes, Jan, my comment was childish and stupid. Sorry. I’ve removed it. I understand that you don’t want my thoughts on the question anyway. It is a good question, but you did post it in a comment board on an essay I wrote. If you want more response from others, perhaps you should expand on it as a separate post? Explain exactly what you take “meditation” to be, and why you think it might be productive? Just a suggestion.

  13. Tom,

    Apologies accepted. I would like to hear your comments but it is true that I should define “meditation” before that. My style of mediation is often quite close to what Jason Siff writes in his books “Unlearning meditation” and “Thoughts are not the enemy” – though I think they are still too buddhist.

    I’m not going to go any further defining meditation in this comment section to your essay. Firstly I don’t want to derail the discussion any more and secondly I don’t think it is worthwhile to write here, as I cannot predict if my comments or the following discussion will be available to anyone. Kind of depression really, as it happens in economy too: When the environment gets too unstable, there is no way of predicting if the investments are going to return any gain. Then the desire to participate (with funds or ideas) withdraws into subject and turns into depression. This is not my own thought, it’s from Franco Bifo Berardi, if I remember that right.

    I think this comment is kind of off-topic too, but please let this stay a while so that Patrick gets my email, as we might have something to discuss.


    I didn’t get to read your comment before it was removed here, but I got it into my email. Thanks for your thoughts. Would be nice to hear from you, my email is caries at tutanota.com

    I don’t see why Tom removed that spesific comment, but I do see why he removed some others.

  14. Tomek posted this comment in another thread. I think it was meant for here:

    Come on guys! What is going on?! I understand (or honestly, rather now) that Tom cut out some of Patrick’s comments – but banning him from the blog altogether! He was trying to post in this particular thread, nothing to do with the latest post from Tom or for that matter nothing to do with Tom’s person and you’re banning him just like that. Or is it you Glenn? That I wouldn’t believe. This is just ridiculous! Greetings from London, UK.

    Tomek, no one has ever been banned from this blog. Whenever someone writes a post, I give him or her full control over the settings. Everyone has his or her own criteria for what to allow or disallow. Tom said somewhere in this thread that his criterion would be whether a comment is relevant to the discussion. For this post, that’s his call to make. I value his contributions immensely, and so just leave it at that. Anyone who is still willing and able to think seriously about x-buddhism and related issues today should be grateful that Tom is taking the trouble to contribute. As the current post makes clear, it is extremely difficult to think or act, individually and collectively, in a way that avoids the two voids of serving as fuel for the machine and completely shutting down. In the hands of current x-buddhist teachers, the raw materials of Buddhist practice are used to refine fuel for the machine. The problem is, the same can be said for philosophers and philosophy, activists and activism, and so on and so forth.

    I believe that there is one thing you can be sure about when reading a post, as well as many of the comments, on this blog. And that is that the person writing it is on the brink. On the brink of abandoning x-buddhist and philosophical materials outright. On the brink of abandoning hope in any political or cultural solution. On the brink of giving up on seeking edification in dialogue with others. On the brink of giving up on thinking altogether. For a person who refuses the easy answers that the all-consuming happiness industry juggernaut offers us–whether x-buddhist, philosophical, or political– and refuses to retreat into solitary refuge, where is there but the brink?

  15. I think I may have gone right over the brink. I think perhaps I’ve turned into Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.

    But as far as I know there is no way to “ban” someone from this kind of blog. All I can do is remove comments made on this particular essay.

    And I will continue to do so with any comment unrelated to the issues it raises: the problems of persisting in clearly false Lockean assumptions, foolish errors of translation, and the kinds of poor thinking necessary to produce the neoliberal subject.

    If if is the case that my essay is pointless, irrelevant, and a waste of everyone’s time, then you need not feel obliged to waste more time pointing this out. I will just delete that comment anyway. Granted, I am a hypocritical silk-shirt marxist, and a horrible obnoxious ass; again you need not waste time pointing out the obvious, I will delete the comment anyway.

    I will also remove any comment, from this particular thread, following this particular essay, that discusses anything else other than the content of the essay itself. The ideas in the essay will likely silently fade away; there is no need to try to shout them down with diatribes on unrelated topics.

    If only this could prompt a few folks to reflect on the use of these two terms, self and consciousness. Terms serving an ideological purpose, with no conceptual content, and which endlessly keep us from learning to think. But I already know it won’t, so don’t bother to tell me how naive I am–I will just remove it.

    I hope this serves as enough of an explanation. I will also remove any metacomments about this comment, so don’t waste time and energy yelling about censorship or whatever–you can discuss how oppressed and censored you are by the evil dictator Pepper on any other comment thread to your hearts content.

    If you have nothing to say about the ideas contained in the essay–then say it somewhere else!

    As far as I know, Glenn is not over the deep end as I am. He’s a much more reasonable person, and I expect he’ll react more sanely to whatever you post.

  16. Tom said:
    “…real work on changing the world can’t begin until enough people have come to see their way out of the constraints of these Lockean concepts of the world.”

    I think this gets to the heart of the matter and a major stumbling block for most people leading to some of the reactionary responses here. I used to feel that any change was an impossibility. However, I wasn’t reactionary to SNB and was eager to learn more, critique more and think more. Maybe that’s enlightenment. Anyway, when I first started coming to SNB, the idea I had settled on for really changing the world was that we get everyone to agree on some sort of basic standards of living. Kind of like standards of care or best practices in medicine. These would forever be revised, but that would be one of the standards. Unfortunately, after much activism and attempts at socially engaged x-buddhism and christianity I became cynical and thought ‘getting everyone to agree’ wasn’t possible.

    Learning about ideology and Buddhism’s potential to be a ‘science of ideology’ kind of changed my mind. Many articles here point to the theoretical possibility for real change. Theoretical might be the wrong word, but understanding ideology in our World and working collectively to intentionally choose ideologies is possible. However, as Tom states here and elsewhere, the current ideology is unable at this point to produce a subject that can change anything. We’re in the dark. We can’t even imagine what such a subject would be or do. Unfortunately, we’ve seen reactionary responses saying that ‘yes we can make change…even individuals can’. Suggestions of passing out leaflets and going vegetarian were offered. But, has that ever changed a thing? Maybe a few minds, but they ultimately fail, even after some initial change. We’ve talked about the reasons why here. The reactionary subject completely dismisses the whole idea Tom is bringing up for discussion. This knowledge of ideology is very helpful in seeing why the current activist tools are so unsuccessful! It’s a step beyond giving up. Add in a full strength anatman and change to decrease suffering would be so much easier, no? However, delusion seems to keep the majority of people unable to see beyond their current and sacred suffering to even attempt to understand ideology, much less anatman. It is astoundingly ironic how x-buddhism keeps people from taking on anatman and it’s ramifications and leads to a reinforcement of ‘the individual’. A major source of suffering in Buddhism. This is why I teeter on the edge. I would love to discuss/critique the shit out of everything I hear on a daily basis from peers to the radio. I’m too tired though. Like one of those caged dogs that just got used to the constant shocks in those learned helplessness experiments. Yet I still get excited when I find a new article, essay or book that doesn’t flinch at potential truth.

    My hope is that some of the above can bring some conversation to this essay. Not really sure what that would look like. I think we are on the right track. Anyone who’s had a taste of how I define enlightenment knows there is no going back and going forward into the vacant horizon is a possible choice. I think we’re generations away from seriously being able to ask ‘what do we do now?’ And, it’s infuriating to hear people dismiss Tom’s points, for example, with that ridiculous argument. It’s pretty clear that criticism is what part of the ‘change process’ we’re in now, no? I’m not sure.

  17. Craig: Your discussion of your willingness to engage in critique has raised a question for me. Most of my exasperation, my irrational anger, arises when I encounter a refusal to engage with arguments. That is, when the response is flat refusal to consider arguments, or just simple contrary assertion. I’m wondering now if perhaps that kind of response is itself the only one available to the properly interpellated Lockean subject. Reaction to stimuli, not social production of meaning, is all that is possible. There would be no way to persuade someone out of this position with evidence and argument, then. One would have to be already poorly interpellated into this subject position to be able to participate in such critical debate. So, how can the bad subjects force this truth, against such a reactionary subject? I think I’ll have to set aside the Platform Sutra, and make my daily meditation text Feyerbend’s Against Method for a few weeks. I can’t imagine a solution at this point…

  18. I thought I’d share this thought. The most challenging aspect of Tom’s essay is the practical work that it calls for. It’s challenging for me, and I am sure that it will prove to be challenging for anyone who is willing to take on this work. “Taking on the work” is something very different from a mere refutation or counter-argument. Those responses might be useful, too, of course, as a way of clarifying; but they are more often distractions or outright derailments.

    The essay both provides an astute analysis of certain costs and consequences of a particular, and particularly pernicious, ideological staple of our current World (mind, consciousness). The analysis functions as an unveiling. So, the ground is clear for something different. That is when the practical work, the praxis, begins.

    Perhaps we can…learn to think in concepts different from our own, and get some space from our conceptual imprisonment in the Lockean ideology of the subject.

    We might try a similar thing with Buddhism…

    What if, instead, we made it our practice to question such obviously ideological concepts, and to explore concepts in Buddhist texts that don’t have any correspondence in our language? (Emphasis added)

    I can think of ways that such a practice can be actualized both individually and communally. I have been doing that work myself. For now, I just want to highlight this facet of the essay. It makes me think of the Frankfurt School’s basic requirement for doing critical work: it must offer both an analysis and a step toward a solution.

  19. Glenn,
    I can think of ways to do this kind of work personally. I really did, for instance, spend the time to read “The Cloud of Unknowing” it the original MIddle English (there’s a good edition editied by Patrick Gallacher). When I read sutras from the Pali canon, I take enormous time with them, reading mulitple translations but also getting the Pali text socieity version and working through the original. I’m always amazed by how different the original is conceptually from any of the translations–how often the translations assume very modern capitalist concepts are adequate substitutes.

    But as I said, my belief is that there would need to be a number of people not imprisoned by these Lockean ideological concepts, before any actual ideological practice could emerge. So here’s the problem: how is it possible to undertake this kind of work communally? That is, how is it possible to convince someone who is thoroughly and properly interpellated as a neoliberal subject of global capitalism that this kind of work is worth doing–or even to explain to them what the problem is, and what exaclty the “work” would entail? My experience is, only those who are already bad subjects of capitalism can understand any of the critique, and even many of those are too hopeless to believe it worth while to do something about it.

    Can you say anything more, then, about how you can envision carrying out this work communally?

  20. Tom (19)-

    The neoliberal subject is not only dismissive but quite aggressive in asserting their views as the assumption is that their views are as valid as anyone else’s! Unfortunately, it’s basically impossible to argue with these folks as they just rebut with dismissal while becoming more entrenched in their views. This makes me angry too. So fucking angry! Every time I’ve attempted such discussions I just give up and wonder if I’m wrong! These conservative (for lack of a better word) people in my life are petite bourgeois, lower middle class white folks or well read academics who can’t think to save their lives. And yes, they are good Lockeans, thinking that they have thought all this through and personally have come to these conclusions. I’m reminded of all the ‘don’t tread on me’ bumper stickers and the stupid libertarian who lives down the street. Anyway, I wonder if truth will be forced when there is just a deluge of bad capitalist subjects. That has to happen at some point, no? When the prisons are full, there’s no more food or shelter and everyone is addicted to oxy.

    The idea of translation is very interesting. I went to a mainline seminary for a few years. I took Koine Greek. Essentially a dead language much of the new testament was written in. Anyway, even with a very primitive knowledge, I could see such huge assumptions and agendas in the various official translations of the bible. Obviously, living with fluid translations of Pali texts might be a bridge to x-buddhists. Glenn has done a good job of reclaiming ‘right speech’ on this site. The four truths and the eightfold path could totally be translated in ways that could encourage conversation of ideology and possible break into some of our Lockean assumptions.

  21. Glenn said:
    …what exactly the “work” would entail? My experience is, only those who are already bad subjects of capitalism can understand any of the critique, and even many of those are too hopeless to believe it worth while to do something about it.”

    This makes sense. I’m the bad capitalist subject who ‘gets it’, but basically can’t do anything. It’s a shitty place to be, as you know. You see the ever increasing misery of the world on all fronts, but cannot regress to ignorant bliss. Can’t move forward either. As I said above, maybe this type of discussion, even if with a small minority, is the ‘work’ now? It could ultimately lead to ideas about change and actual action with future generations. Too hopeful? 🙂

    As far as doing work now, it’s like this invisible hand (pun intended) is holding me back from thinking, arguing, speaking out, rallying, standing on the highway, banging on doors telling people to quit going to work. Would this be the ‘work’? Maybe we can’t even imagine it now.

    I do have this fantasy where everyone somehow has this collective realization that they are not god-ordained individuals, but generic bodies. We all step outside, look at each other and just give a collective sigh. We all realize that basic needs are the priority. We jump to work because we are not caught up in our individual proclivities of what we like to eat or the downside of having a smelly homeless person live in our house.

    Sorry to ramble. Feel free to ignore. :–)

  22. In today’s online New York Times, an essay from last April appeared in the list of “most popular” articles. The essay is called “Achieving Mindfulness at Work, No Meditation Cushion Required.” Matthew May explains that:

    There are two approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern view indeed positions meditation as an essential tool to achieving a mindful state. But the Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and suspending thought. This philosophy is almost the complete opposite of the Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.

    I’ve tried to point out often that the “suspending thought” idea is really not “Eastern” at all, but a Western idea which acquired the label “Buddhist” in the 1960s. But that aside, the popularity of this essay does seem to indicate that this is a somewhat significant issue in the American workplace. (May points out how common mindfulness training has become in American corporations).

    I’m not sure quite what to make of this, though. Clearly, May’s alternative is still thoroughly Lockean–using a “higher order awareness” to monitor lower-order functions, keeping everything inside one brain, to maximize efficient workplace production. Maybe the incapacity for thought is only helpful for employees at the lowest level? Middle management or higher still needs to think, but think in very limited ways? I’m not sure.

    May is peddling a book on using neuroscience to maximize efficiency, so I wouldn’t expect him to have any awareness of the conceptual aporia that someone like Balibar can point out. But at least the popularity of this kind of discussion indicates just how pervasive and significant these Lockean assumptions remain.

    Craig: I have the same fantasy. I wonder if it would make a good short story–maybe make some people think?

  23. That was an interesting article. Of course he got it backwards. Thinking about it now, it sounds absolutely ridiculous to think the Buddha taught some sort of blissful meditation that seems in contrast to the ethical teaching of ending suffering. However, I’ve always wondered if meditation could intentionally be used as a source of building attention or stamina for thinking or acting. Does that make sense? This may sound totally Lockean, but “I” think I feel more rested or available after a short meditation session. I could used that to just chill out, I guess, or I could choose to then practice reading intently, considering an unsolvable problem, writing a short story, being less reactionary in a argument. Just a thought.

    Tom, very good idea about a story. I might try it. Of course, I can already hear folks dismissing it as too ‘utopian’. 🙂

  24. Craig: My own take on this is that “meditation” need not be a relaxed and thought-free state at all. There is no pali or Sanskrit term that is equivalent to mediation (it translates several different terms, and sometimes is just added into English translations). The term used to mean something like “to think of a way to solve a problem,” but came to mean thought-free states in about the 1960s. Christian “meditation”, for instance, is intensely conceptual (although modern translations of old Christian texts tend to think they mean “thought-free” by the term as well, so misrepresent them.

    So, sure, relaxation states can leave you feeling more “rested and available.” So can a nap, so we could call that meditation, too, I guess.

    Some scholars suggest that we focus too much on the initial training states of Buddhist practice, which were in fact meant to train monks in focused concentration prior to beginning the more rigorous conceptual work of Buddhist mental training–which would have been quite taxing in an age without many written texts or notebooks to use as memory aids.

    And so what if the story is utopian? I’m all for utopianism. I was recently reminded of a poem by Adrienne Rich in which she says that “it is obvious that the destruction of despair is still our most urgent task.” She wrote that in part in response to the Bush administration, and the horrors of 2000-2002, but I think it is even more necessary in today’s more fully Neoliberal age.

  25. What is the SNB take on the works of Jed McKenna? He is certainly not a Buddhist teacher, but he has laid claim to having an enlightened brain. I think their are some parallels in his way of approaching the enlightenment thing as I have seen here-critical thinking, questioning all assumptions, burning away all beliefs to see what survives, and looking towards any source of literature as possible input. He has written of the American transcendentalist writers as having been more influential on his awakening than any Eastern teachers or teachings. He even spent most of his second book explaining how Moby Dick could be one of the best guides on spiritual awakening.

    Obviously, he is also meant to be a non-verifiable quasi-fictional character as well. Yet, his books have broken the spell for me where most Buddhist books put me to sleep with fairy tale versions enlightenment. What he sells seems plausible: abiding non-dual awareness as a result of hard-questioning the concepts of self, ego, belief, or anything at all untill you have burned it all away. Question and burn everything until only truth remains, namely that “I am” or “awareness is” is the only thing we can objectively verify, self is just a tool of the mind, not the “I am” itself. No mention of being mindful, compassionate, or blissful. His concept of Human Adulthood is also very interesting as it is what (he explains) spiritual seekers really want, not the blood and guts battle field path that spiritual awakening really is.

    In other words, I like his version of enlightenment theory and so in the spirit of questioning everything I thought I would throw it into the fire here and see what survives. Sorry if this was not the appropriate spot for posting this.


  26. Re 27: There’s a certain appeal to this kind of silliness, I suppose. These “McKenna” books are the kind of thing that reminds some of us of being fourteen, and having an actual thought for the first time, and realizing that this thought would not be something one could mention to a teacher, parent, minister, etc. That is, it has always seemed to me that some percentage of American teenage boys, in complete opposition to what they are being trained to do in school or the culture at large, begin contemplate things like the possibility that beliefs are socially constructed, or that we may be deluded in many of our assumptions. Devoid of any access to centuries of thought on this subject, they think they have discovered something profound. All too often, they become enamored of the closest thing we (in America) have to philsophy: the misongynist capitalist ideology known as “transcendentalism.” They make foolish errors like believing the cogito can ground all truth, can somehow be an alternative to religious dualism (when, of course, it is the founding error of all dualisms). Eventually, they stumble onto the vast realm of actual thought (usually completely outside the official content of any classroom), and all this kind of transcendental stuff comes ot seem a bit embarrassing, and the adolescent terror of women at its core begins to fade.

    Or, maybe that’s just me.

    But you do raise a good point, Adam. This kind of adolescent, misogynistic, narcissistic ideal, the thing which motivates so many college professors enamored of Emerson and Melville, is the same ideological formation at the core of Western Buddhism, in its American form, and certainly of mindfulness as well as the illusions of neuro-enlightenment. The terror of thought, of working for social change, and most of all of women–all common to the American adolescent boy–are the motivating force behind so much of the spiritual grift. Probably the only cultural practice in the world more fascist and misogynistic than the teenage-boy genres of superheroes and sci-fi is one dominated by the intellectually and emotionally immature men: Western Buddhism.

    It is yet another source of my despair that so many people who have been to college, even to graduate school, can still mistake narcissims and anti-intellectualism for some profound and enlightened state. In the words of Emerson: “If I am true, the very want of action, my very impotency, shall become a greater excellency than all skill and toil.”

  27. TP: “I expected to fail yet again . . . but perhaps fail a bit better.”

    SB: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  28. Fail better, yes. I don’t expect to convert even a single reader here–those who will understand this probably see it better than I do already. Perhaps to fail better is no more that to introduce a doubt into the dominant discourse, to somehow indirectly cause the mainstream of x-Buddhism or neuro-cognitive-happiness or even philosophy to even pause and think twice about the terms consciousness and self?

    If I ever see a book on Yogacara that questions not whether “consciousness-only” is a kind of idealism, but whether “consciousness” is the right term; if I ever see an essay or book on philosophy of mind that pauses to consider whether the “first person ontology” solution really solves, or means, anything at all; if I ever see critics of mindfulness questioning not whether it is really Buddhist, or whether it is as universally helpful as claimed, but whether it is in fact anything other than a collectively produced delusion to believe that they “live in the present moment nonconceputally”; then, I hope, I will have failed long enough, and can stop.

    The Lockean ideology of the subject is so pervasive, even those from clearly non-western background get sucked immediately into it as soon as they start speaking and writing in English. (Or, maybe it seems natural to them because really there is no place anymore that is not part of the capitalist World).

    In The Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom he devotes three chapters, almost a third of the book, to the problem of consciousness. Although he is aware that there is no term in either sanskrit or Tibetan that corresponds to the English word “consciousness” (see pp. 121-122). Still, he has to assume that this is merely linguistic problem, and that we are all talking about he same underlying thing, just in different terms. Reading these chapters, there does seem to be a bit of discomfort with this essentialist assumption, but he, or whoever his advisers were on this book, can’t conceive of an alternative. There is even a resort to the same “first person ontology” argument that Searle makes–The Dalai Lama seems unconvinced that the mind or consciousness can really be explained usefully by neuroscience (although the subtitle of the book is “the convergence of science and spirituality”), but can’t quite see an alternative to the atomistic “consciousness” of capitalist ideology. Eventually, his discussion of consciousness focuses on the problem of emotion–where again, he notes that Sanskrit and Tibetan have no equivalent for the English term, but assumes that nonetheless “emotions” must be a universal human experience, so he just trials off with discussions of whether Western psychology, which helps people with their emotions, is somehow similar to Buddhism. It doesn’t seem conceivable to the author(s) of this book that “emotion” is an ideological term, invented around the same time as “consciousness” and “self,” in service of the same empiricist ideology for the subject. And, like those other two terms, how much ink has been spilled trying to define this particular floating signifier, with absolutely no progress (look at the explosion of new books in the past few years devoted to trying to assert that emotions are universal and biological, a constant throughout history, but which never succeed in defining what an emotion is, or noticing that their historical sources have no equivalent term).

    So, fail better? I think I will have failed long (and often) enough when someone smarter or more persuasive or just more articulate than me has found a way to introduce a glimmer of critical thought about these problems into some of the dominant discourses. Then maybe our kids won’t be told in school every day to stop thinking, memorize more, and drug their brains into computational efficiency.

  29. Hey Tom, thanks for this great post.
    I was just reading The Mail in The New Yorker (Oct.10th) a letter entitled “Consciousness in Science”, someone responding to Adam Kirsch’s review of Anthony Gottlieb’s book, “The Dream of Reason” (the second installment of his history of Western philosophy) in particular where Kirsch writes, “Even today, cognitive scientists struggle to understand how consciousness arises from matter, though few doubt that it does” (Sept. 5th).
    Yikes, what a statement! I had to go back and read the review. Some kind of science, eh? The letter goes on to say that there are quite a few scientists, both inside and outside the neurosciences, that DO doubt this assumption…that consciousness arising from matter is not a scientific finding at all but a dogma based on a Cartesian (Lockean?) world view, and how these scientists are “blind to the lines between their scientifically validated understanding of the world and received assumptions.”
    Anyway, uncommon to see someone speak out against this assumption–thought I’d share it.

  30. Danny,
    Sounds like an interesting review. I’m curious about the writer of the letter. When he suggests that many sceintists do doubt the arising of consciousness, what does he have in mind? I would guess he’s referring to the reductivists? People like Churchland? There are quite a few who say that consciousness, thought, mind, etc. are just epiphenomena, and all that is “really real” is neurological states. They are even more terrified of the social domain than the Lockean. Of course they still make the Humean error: the assume a kind of transcendent self that mistakes the epiphenomenon for the cause–a self that percieves these mental activities and is fooled by them. This has been pointed out by scores of their critics. Then, there’s the performative contradiciton: since we are all just automata and thought can have no effect, how does their own discourse function as true thought about the world, able to have real effects? The reductionists are still stuck in the consciousness trap; they just make the error of believing in it while asserting that they don’t, and thinking they have transcended the problem.

    Aristotle argued that humans are a social animal by nature. That what distinguishes us from herds of cattle or hives of bees is our use of speech, our collective production of knowledge and meaning. Really working through such pre-capitalist ways of understanding the world is the only way I’ve ever found that works to escape this conceptual trap. I don’t know of any scientists who do this kind of thing, though–they all remain well within the assumptions of empiricism. I mean, maybe there are some, I hope there are, but I don’t know of any. Success and popularity in science depends on sticking firm in this basic error. I love the last phrase of that sentence: “few doubt that it does.” Belief against all evidence is the way to success in the American scientific community.

  31. And here’s today’s dose of Neoliberal Dharma, from Tricycle Magazine:

    “The more we try to make life conform to our desires, the more we struggle, and the more we suffer. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to accept what arises, completely: in other words, do nothing.”

  32. Tom Re: 33

    Thanks for that…did you read the article? Oh boy, talk about lobotomy. Here the last line:

    “How strange!” I thought, as the retreat came to a close, “Who would have thought you could find a way of freedom simply by doing nothing?”

    I don’t know, doesn’t it seem like some good dope might be the most efficient path to where he’s going with this kind of thing? Of course you wouldn’t want to get too regular with that kind of thing…not if you cared to hang on and remember which one of the boys you are!

    Made me think of this line from Laruelle I heard Matthew use in one of his interviews with Glenn on IPB:

    “[Finding a way to freedom by doing nothing] is not sufficient because man is implicated in the world.”

  33. Danny,
    I didn’t read the article–I don’t subscribe to Tricylce. I just get emails from them periodically about new issues, or book, or online retreats. Each one is more horrifying than the last.

    Yes, that interview, especially the second part, raised a few important issues. Among them (for me of most interest) was the suggesting that we can be philosophically materialist and be even more neoliberal than the transcendentialisc/idealists. We are implicated in the world–and the only people who can be happy pretending to detachment are the affluent beneficiaries of this global capitalist nightmare of oppression and environmental destruction. (80 degrees in October here in New England–good thing that global warming thing is a myth, or I might get worried).

  34. There’s an interesting discussion between two philosophers and an evolutionary biologist about the nature of consciousness here: https://iai.tv/video/matter-and-mind
    Near the end, Ray Brassier suggests that consciousness is ultimately social. I wonder how much of the difficulty might be cleared away if we just began from the point Balibar makes: consciousness is just an empty term meant to mask a conceptual gap. Could we then begin where Brassier ends in this discussion, and make some real progress?

  35. And another daily dose of neoliberal dharma, from Tricycle:

    Zen blissfully blows away dangerous moments of intelligence and understanding.

  36. Tom (#36). Your point brings to mind the fact that, in the terms I’m using, non-buddhism is not engaged in a struggle against x-buddhism: it’s engaged in a struggle against x-buddhists. The two are separated by a chasm. You know of course that x-buddhist materials do allow us to begin with Brassier’s conclusion. Imagine if the millions and millions of words pouring from the mouths of x-buddhist teachers, books, blogs, etc. explicating anatman began with the assumption of its being a social category. The concept could then serve the very antagonist to its current master, consumerist-corporate-capitalism. Imagine the kind of practitioner, the kind of actor in the world, that training would produce. The words “Buddhist” and “Buddhism” would evoke a formidable force of change.

    But that’s not how it is. Instead, we struggle against the blind allegiance of current x-buddhist figures to the very obfuscating idealist forces of reactionism that their x-buddhist materials are, arguably, designed to expose and dismantle. If they can’t be convinced that their supposedly x-buddhist notions of self, consciousness, and so on merely parrot those of the current dominant ideology, x-buddhism will continue to evoke nothing but New Age idiocy to the wider society.

  37. Yes, the “Taking Anatman Full Strength” essay does try to begin with the assumption that the mind is fundamentally social, that it arises socially not individually. But I don’t know that it really persuaded anyone, or that anyone quite grasped the real point (except for those few who already agreed, that is). I wonder if it has to do with my rhetorical practices. I sometimes think what I do is something like Aristotelian dialectic: beginning in shared terms and concepts, and pushing to complicate them. Those who don’t complain about how many “hard words” I use will often tell me that my writing is “clear,” but clarity usually means not much more than “says what I already think.” I don’t know that Aristotle’s dialectical practice ever really works, because once you start from the agreed upon “common sense’ terms, it is hard to get too far out of them. The reader mostly stays at the starting point, refuses to go along with the implications of the argument.

    I’m starting to wonder if the better approach is what Feyerabend suggests that “the first step” would have to be to “step outside the circle and either invent a new conceptual system” or to “import such a system from outside”, from mythology, ancient thought, or “the ramblings of madmen.” This would break the blinding hold of the conceptual system, but also make visible new “facts” that cannot appear from within our ordinary (and “clear”) language. Maybe that’s the approach to take…

    Incidentally, the “Taking Anatman Full Strength” essay, and a number of others, are probably just as easy to get here:
    And a lot cheaper than the monthly fee at Scribd.

  38. While I find much of this essay quite stimulating, I’m a little perplexed as to why you assume a passivity in Shinzen’s system? Haven’t read much of his new book yet, but from his other stuff I see a strong emphasis on IMPROVING self & world (not just “passively” appreciating sensate phenomena), and that Mindfulness as he uses the term is a skill to be used as appropriate (i.e. savouring every detail of the experience of walking through a forest free from irrational ruminations can be a Good Thing, but its probably not helpful to get stuck in HD-Sensory-Awareness when you’re doing advanced calculus or debating philosophy).

  39. Rob,
    Perhaps you’re “perplexed” because you are under the impression that I’m “assuming” something. I don’t assume anything–I am merely repeating what Young literally says, repeatedly, in his book. If you think I’m misrepresenting what the book says, maybe reading it will clear things up for you.

  40. As for the problem of consciousness, I have been pretty thoroughly convinced by Michael S. Graziano’s work “Consciousness and the Social Brain”, that consciousness is an “attribution” of consciousness to self and other, and that capacity for this attribution comes from our evolution as a social species, with complex societies and language. I’m not going to explain the full theory here, read the book (2013, Oxford Univ Press) or the pdf
    article: http://www.pppl.gov/sites/pppl/files/events/abstract/Graziano_0.pdf

    Not surprisingly he begins with the same “writing with a pencil” problematic that this post starts with.

  41. As for the problem of “what then shall we do?” in terms of effective social action: I don’t study philosophy, I study sociology, in particular social movements. For one, “resilience” is absolutely necessary when one is engaged in oppositional struggle against the capitalist system. When you are trying to dismantle the very system that your fragile life depends on, you better find some way to be resilient in order to survive the process. Resilience is a collective effort, not an individualistic one. Individuals are not resilient by themselves; communities are. Secondly, I see a lot of hope in the social movements that have been occurring in ever-faster and larger waves over the last half century, and have been amplified, accelerated, networked and globalized through the internet, with wave after wave of mass civil unrest. What we are seeing is not the One Grand Revolution that will END HISTORY, but a billion small diverse social movements on every possible issue, linking together, coalescing and gradually networking toward becoming a new kind of society. Why am I hopeful? Because I study actual social movements on the ground, their strategies and effectiveness, where they succeed and where they fail. Philosophy and critical theory is a tool that provides necessary critique of social movements, but it’s not the movement itself. The problem with philosophy is that it confuses and substitutes the theory and critique with the actual work of the movement, as if critique IS the movement, and it’s not. Marxists make this mistake all the time, as much as neoliberal academics. Action is the social movement; philosophy and critique are used to help us make better decision about what kinds of strategic action to take. However, the critique usually happens after the fact. Conditions on the ground determine what kinds of action a social movement will take, usually in the situational moment and almost spontaneously. Critique comes after that has taken place to evaluate whether the strategy has worked. Ex: Black Lives Matter is a direct response to police shootings of black youth. Its the first civil rights movement of the internet generation and one of the few movements with the power to stand up to the Police State. Blockadia–as described by Naomi Klein in “This Changes Everything”; tiny groups on the ground sometimes in the middle of nowhere blocking pipelines and fracking wells. Yet they have been effective at stopping scores of fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Each of these tiny actions is linked to a vast network of climate activists who also engage in mass protests and civil unrest to stop the fossil fuel industry; and a social movement to create alternatives to fossil fuels. There are so may other movements I could list as examples.

  42. This morning’s neoliberal dharma, from Tricycle:

    I had thought the point was to pursue happiness and flee misery, and this attitude extended to Zen practice. But now I saw a new way of looking at things. What if the point was to start by accepting suffering?

  43. I came across this article today and whilst it may not be immediately obvious how it connects to your post here I think it does inasmuch as it is a good illustration of the way that language never just ‘describes’ natural phenomena but always carries ideological assumptions with it.


    It also made me wonder how far the category of the ‘social’ in socially produced mind extends. Do you think of it as limited to human social systems because of the importance of symbolic language, or does it extend beyond that? The reason that I ask is that I’m interested in the possibility that dealing with complex natural systems that cannot be adequately accounted for through existing ideology may – in some circumstances, in some people – may lead to new concepts / ideas.


  44. RE 46: Interesting article. For me, the limiting term is not “social” but “mind.” That is, what is limited by being “symbolic” is the mind–what we mean by mind is just the capacity for symbolic communication, which requires multiple participants. There do seem to be other kinds of “social” things, like insects, or appartenlty forests, but they don’t have a mind in the way speaking humans do.

    What’s interesting to me in this essay about symbiosis is that it demonstrates how the facts that are available to us depend on the assumptions, or metaphors, or models from which we begin. If we can only see all organisms as in competition for their solitary success, we find one set of facts. Those facts can never lead to a new theory, though. We dont’ “reinterpret” the facts. Instead, Sheldrake seems to have been able to produce new facts because he begins from a new set of assumptions (organisms work collectively for mutual benefit), and just looks to see what kind of engagement with the world the assumptions will lead to.

    My interest, and this point, is to do something similar with the idea of mind.

  45. RE 49: That clarifies things, thanks.

    Glenn / Tom, further to your recommendation above I’m currently reading A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature which is my first real foray into non-philosophy beyond a superficial engagement via blogs etc. I think I’m getting to grips with its deployment of the One as radically foreclosed to thought, however, I’m less clear about the dyadic structure of standard philosophical material. My initial sketch is something along the following lines – in attempting to conceptualise immanence (grasp it philosophically?) standard philosophy implicitly assumes a transcendental element (thought as outside of the One), even though it may deny this explicitly, or be blind to it. Am I moving in the right direction here, or have I completely misunderstood?

    Also, it has just occurred to me that this may be getting off topic, both for this post and this blog. If so, please feel free to ignore.

  46. Another gem of neoliberal dharma from Trike for us useless humans:

    “In the very act of sitting, we actualize the completeness of the act itself and we actualize our own full completeness as a useless human being, another name for which is Buddha.”

  47. I’m wondering what we might get from Marxist theory regarding the collective nature of consciousness or mind? In his theory of human nature he identifies four distinct types of human alienation due to capitalist systems (alienation from the product of labor; from productive activity; from the human species; from fellow human beings). In particular, I’m thinking of category three, the “alienation from human species activity”.

    Human beings (in contrast to animals) live in an active relationship to the outside world, or what he referred to as “conscious mental being”. His view was that species alienation breaks the connection which humans have to their conscious mental being, turning labor into a physical act, revoking the advantage nature gives to humans over animal life by converting conscious being into physical being in the act of labor. Humans must “prepare nature to make it palatable and digestible”, so we must labor upon it to work it up, thus objectifying our world and proclaiming ourselves as a species is this way. Species life is meant to be with others in society and experienced in a collective way, but species alienation breaks the existing connection by making all experience individual experience. Society is no longer experienced in its collective, human form.

    Does he seem to be suggesting a collective nature of mind that perhaps we are blind to due to the myriad ways capitalism separates and individuates us at every turn? Just some thoughts……..

  48. Danny,
    There is at least a clear sense that the collective capability of humans to cooperate, our social nature, is what separates us from animals: “When the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species” (Capital, chapt. 13). Here, of course, he is suggesting that the “fetters of individuality” are the result of capitalist social practices–but there is an assumption that our ability to collectively “plan” is what frees us from natural history, from the condition of animals.

    There is always an assumption, in Capital and in much marxist theory, that “consciousness”, or our way of thinking, is collectively produced, even when we collectively produce the illusion that it is completely individual. That is, the myth of the Lockean pre-social individual mind thinking outside of language is one that can only occur in certain kinds of social formations.

    The focus for marxism is always outward, on the practice, and so less is said about the “mind” and how it is produced most of the time. But we can see how practices like mindfulness and Western Buddhism work, as collective social practices, to produce the illusion of a non-social mind, pretending the “mind” they create is not dependent on the practices that create it.

    When we fail to see this, it seems to me, we wind up with the kind of neuro-reductive nonsense that leaves us hoping to get that lobotomy Shinzen Young dreams of, or settling for just getting stoned.

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