Last Monday, Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma,” an email offering inspiring quotations from the magazine’s essays, contained a passage from the essay “What’s So Great About Now?” which takes a critical stance toward the popular practice of mindfulness meditation. A reader of this blog sent me a copy of the essay suggesting that I would like it, as it seemed to him to confirm my own criticism of mindfulness.
I thought I’d take a little time to respond this essay, for two reasons. First, the critique of mindfulness in this essay is absolutely not something I would agree with, and what better way to waste a rainy afternoon than one more futile attempt to clarify my own position? Second, the most common complaint I’ve heard since the first essay I ever wrote on SNB (other than that I am an obnoxious jerk, of course) is that I offer only criticism, and don’t produce a positive alternative practice; so I would like to use this essay to try, one more time (and probably, again, futilely) to explain how critique is in fact the positive practice we need to engage in every day.
In “What’s So Great About Now?”, Cynthia Thatcher argues that the common understanding that we will be happier if we just stay in the present moment is a serious error:
“The current myth among some meditation circles is that the more mindful we are, the more beauty we’ll perceive in mundane objects. To the mind with bare attention, even the suds in the dishpan—as their bubbles wink in the light—are windows on divine radiance. That’s the myth.”
Her argument is that the goal of mindfulness ought to be almost the exact opposite: to recognize how unsatisfactory absolutely every “sense-object” is, so that we might “lose all desire for them.”
It might seem, because Thatcher is critical of mindfulness, that I would agree with her position. But in fact I disagree completely with absolutely everything she says. And getting clear on the reasons for this disagreement is not an insignificant quibbling. It is, for me, the most important kind of practice we ought to engage in if we hope to reduce suffering in the world.
To begin with, I would disagree with her claim that in fact mindfulness meditation fails to make the plum sweeter or the copper kettle brighter. I would suggest that it often might do exactly this. The reason it does this, however, is not the reason it is assumed to do this by mindfulness teachers.
That is, we do not more fully or objectively experience the object in mindfulness. Rather, we incorporate the object into an ideological framework in which it is given new and more intense, often more pleasurable, (humanly constructed) meaning. The problem isn’t that we don’t get the euphoria—some people may succeed in getting this. The problem is that when it does work, it works exactly because we have succeeded in becoming more fully deluded, completely ignorant of the ideological narrative we are creating. We begin to assume this humanly created fantasy is in fact the nature of reality itself, and only so long as we can remain in this state of delusion do we get the “benefits” of mindfulness: stress reduction, states of bliss, contentment.
The exact nature of the narrative may vary, but let me offer an example to illustrate. Suppose the mindfulness practitioner believes, as all mindfulness teachers tell him, that he has an eternal and uncreated true mind that will dwell timelessly in a state of orgasmic bliss if he only escapes the trap of conceptual thought. Now, clearly this belief is a conceptual thought, so first we must become confused enough to fail to see that it is. Then we must become convinced that contemplating an object, usually something pleasant like a flower, a candle, or just our breathing, will become intensely pleasurable—but only once we say that this “pleasure” is in fact not pleasure, but beyond the duality of pleasure and displeasure. This second level of confusion is essential: it must absolutely be only pleasurable, but we must insist that if we say this pleasure is not pleasure (knowing of course that it is) we have reached the state of non-conception.
So, at this point, if the mindfulness meditator has gotten this far, he will be fairly well muddled, incapable of intelligent thought or true agency, and convinced he is in some special state. What makes him stay here, and find this unnatural state of inaction so enjoyable? Its place in a bigger narrative, the most common narrative in our culture: the story of the fall and redemption. This moment of mindless inaction is taken as evidence that we are among the chosen who, although we have fallen into this world of unhappiness, will be granted eternal bliss in the next life. And as always, such narratives works only because we are under the gaze of some important Other whose approval of us seems all important—usually the instructor, whose charismatic presence can substitute for the gaze of the mother/father/god whose approval would place us at the meaningful center of the universe.
So, the thrill at what we take to be the full and non-conceptual awareness of the copper kettle or flickering candle is in fact the complete non-awareness of the fantasy narrative we have accepted as truth.
Most times, of course, the limited enjoyment of sitting and doing nothing wears out the charismatic power of the teacher, and so most people lose interest in mindfulness after a few months. But the power of the fantasy produced in this narrative—the deeply held belief that the only true happiness is a state of changeless, effortless, eternal bliss—will remain. We will continue to fail to take action in our lives, to refuse to think, and to live lives of miserable mindless dissatisfaction…and never consider taking action, much less thinking critically, to end this situation. So, mindfulness, in further entrenching our most powerful delusion, has done its work.
But what about Thatcher’s alternative? She explains that her own experience with mindfulness led her to see every object as lacking, as dissatisfactory, because they are impermanent and lack essential nature. Isn’t this the opposite of the more popular current mindfulness practice?
My point it that, in fact, it depends on exactly the same fantasy narrative: Thatcher, as a Therevadin, is sure that she has an eternal uncreated consciousness that is, in her words, “trapped” in this dissatisfactory phenomenal world. She will gain “liberation form the dreary rounds of dukkha” and “behold the real plum—nibbana” only once she loses all interest in the world around her. The goal, then, is identical. Only instead of being guaranteed eternal bliss because we enjoy the plum, we are guaranteed bliss because we no longer enjoy anything (in her phrase, “the more we practice mindfulness, the less we’ll care”). And this is why, perversely, the lack of enjoyment of everything around us becomes so thoroughly enjoyable! It is how we know we are among the chosen.
So what would be a better alternative?
First, we need to escape the trap of the Lockean model of the subject which Thatcher calls Buddhism. Here is her account of the true Buddhist teaching:
“Each moment is composed of two parts: consciousness and one object—-not a watering can or a thimble, but an object of the mind. Consciousness is always aware of something. When a patch of azure bursts into our field of awareness, a blip of eye-consciousness sees the color. When a smell wafts toward us, another blip of consciousness knows the scent. Only mind and object; that’s all there is to it. Our entire lives are nothing but a chain of moments in which we perceive one sight, taste, smell, touch, sound, feeling, or thought after another. Outside of this process, nothing else happens.” (emphasis added)
It is important to note that for Thatcher even emotions and thoughts are just objects—they are not things we do, but things occurring in the impermanent phenomenal world over which the observing mind has no control. We are deluded into thinking we are doing things and creating concepts and causing events, but we are in fact only passive consciousnesses observing these things like shadows on a cave wall.
What could be more patently absurd than this ontology? If we accept it, we would have to agree that human actions, such as writing the essay Thatcher wrote, never actually occur at all—that in fact even her essay was just a phenomena occurring independently of “consciousness,” which her own mind was deluded into thinking was its own intentional action.
I have discussed her before the problem with using Locke’s neologism “consciousness’ to translate Buddhist concepts. I won’t repeat the argument. But it is clear enough that this floating signifier functions to support this narrative of escape from the fallen world into eternal bliss; it is not coincidental that Locke created this term at about the same time that the capitalist commodity form or money began to dominate English (and European) economic life. The idea of a absolute universal against which all concrete particulars seem unimportant is a core component of the capitalist ideology Locke was working to codify.
When we try to translate all Buddhist, or other pre-capitalist, discourse into our ubiquitous Lockean terms, we wind up with absurdities exactly like the common Western understanding of Abhidhamma ontology which Thatcher repeats. We could, perhaps, refrain from doing this facile translation, and understand that the Abhidhamma texts are saying something completely different from our ordinary way of thinking about the mind and the world, that they don’t contain a Lockean atomistic and dualistic consciousness at all. But more often, what we get is ridiculous nonsense no thinking person could accept, followed by assertions that we must not think critically about how stupid these ideas are because, as Thatcher asserts, it is what “the Buddha clearly stated.”
What if we didn’t make this error? What if, instead of believing we could see through the phenomenon to its emptiness and then move on to the eternal timeless essence, we followed another Buddhist argument. Specifically, the idea that seeing the lack of essential nature in an object is just the beginning, and the more important step is understanding that everything, including the mind, lacks essential nature. We could then begin to understand that what is most enjoyable about the copper kettle or the plum is exactly its impermanence, the possibility of change, and the opportunity for action (not just perception) this offers. As Lacan would tell us, we don’t want to make the error of the non-duped; we don’t want to see that our perceptions are constructed, and then draw the mistaken conclusion that they are therefore not real. This is like a person who believes that since the brick wall is a temporary construct she can walk through it.
What we wind up with is quite different. Because we need to focus on the assumed narratives and ideologies that mindfulness works so hard to get us to ignore. But more than that, we would probably be less enamored of a flower or a cup of tea than we would of the ability to take actions in the world.
Actions in the world are always given meaning, and made enjoyable, by the ideologies which inform them. And the task becomes to avoid denying that we construct those ideologies. We could then recognize that we can change them if the kinds of actions they generate produce suffering for ourselves or other human beings (not matter how remote from us, how indirectly caused, that suffering might be). Determining whether we are producing any such suffering becomes integral to any “spiritual” practice. We would be less mindful of objects, and more aware of actions and ideologies.
Thatcher, just as the mindfulness practitioners she critiques, believes devoutly in a dualistic world, in a transcendent and eternal self. She has the advantage, at least, of admitting openly that she does believe this, while most mindfulness teachers deny this even while they continue to insist on it.
My position, what I have called full-strength anatman, insists there is no such thing. We are just as impermanent as every object around us. It is this that enables us to change in ways that can produce enjoyment right here and now in this life, not in some future state of transcendent escape.
Maybe I have helped clear up some misunderstanding about my critique of mindfulness (although this blog is not terribly active, I still get emails about this once a week or so). I most emphatically do not believe that mindfulness doesn’t “work”; it does work very well—it is just that it does not do what its proponents claim, and what it does do is something best avoided.
Perhaps this can also serve as a kind of example of a positive kind of practice: the thorough critique of essays such as this, which might seem true and convincing at first, is what we must always continue to do. This is the practice, because if we don’t do this, we are stuck in error, and can’t hope to take any real action in the world (in fact, we may continue to believe that taking action is undesirable).
I know that what most American Buddhists mean by positive practice is something like this: a technique that will give, or promise, states of effortless euphoric bliss. And that is exactly the error I hope to remove: there are no such states. Enjoyment comes only from effortful engagement in the world! Certainly, I don’t offer any specific ideological practice into which we all ought to be interpellated (yes, that Althusserian terminology again), but I won’t do this for a simple reason: there can be no single correct one. There may be infinite ideologies we can engage in without causing suffering to others. The goal is to first get rid of the idea that we can live without an ideology, that we ought to be detached from our ideologies. And almost everyone is far too quick to assume they have reached this point—too quick to believe they have “seen through” all ideologies, while they have not yet begun to notice their most deeply held assumptions.
Only once we succeed in reaching this awareness of ideologies can begin the task of producing enjoyable attachment to actions, rather than objects, knowing full well they are impermanent, socially constructed, and corrigible.
Maybe start with the creation of a new socialist party?