Mindfulness, Yet Again

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?

22 thoughts on “Mindfulness, Yet Again

  1. “Maybe start with the creation of a new socialist party?” I would like to encourage non-Buddhists to look at Buddhism from a class perspective. I will begin by stating that there is no such thing as ‘working class Buddhism’, at least not among white converts in the West. There is, I will argue, a Buddhism of the Precariat Class, which is the decomposition of the middle class in late Capitalism. More to come on my next blog post.

  2. ‘[A] Buddhism of the Precariat Class, which is the decomposition of the middle class in late Capitalism.’ Interesting idea and one which seems to ring true with the beginnings of the collapse of the identity-capital binary, which drives the growth / debt economy. The decomposition of the middle class surely begins with the Precariat’s failure to manifest objects (mental or otherwise) of desire, which begins with the dissatisfaction towards commodity consumption and then infects drives towards lifestyle production including identity politics. At the moment it would seem that the dualities of self that erupt from precarious living are not fully capable of generating the awareness necessary for compassionate action because the focus on the ‘moment’ is falsely paired with pleasure and hedonistic desire for some kind of mindless transcendence (the YOLO generation). All concerned action in this context appears to be re-routed towards an individualistic desire which tethers productive labour to pleasurable fulfillment / self-actualization and consumption to production – i.e. the false freedoms / agency of the ethical start-up – whilst existing in economic terms purely to divert revolutionary energies at the same time as generating debt and the inkling of mercenary competition, wrapped up as ethical action. Never trust a hippie!

  3. Interesting analysis, although in this form a bit terse. I’d like to hear more about why exactly this class position is not “capable of generating awareness necessary for compassionate action” (it would seem they are not…but is it limited to them?). This is only indirectly related to this particular post, but maybe you could expand on it somewhere else? Perhaps in a discussion of Shaun’s promised post?

  4. Yes it is a bit constipated! I think the problem is centred on the individualist nature of the protestant ethic which translates into capitalist modes of being. They key problem as you point out is the idea of individual salvation and our need for a one-on-one relationship with a god-like object – whether it’s a mindfulness teacher or a Facebook audience. The protestant ethic solicits constant surveillance generating a binary relationship of output / feedback, work / reward, living labour / grace of God. It seems whether or not we have the panopticon of God or a smartphone or the internal surveillance of productivism, we are all doomed to a particular time-frame and currently mindfulness is simply used as a respite from this or space of recuperation – like a vacation. As you touch upon it also recuperates desire and pleasure necessary for the recuperation of consumer capitalism in whatever form – be it growing and appreciating organic veg or rolling a high-end prune around on one’s tongue. Anyway, apologies for the digression. Like you say perhaps I can continue this discussion elsewhere.

  5. Tom, of all the helpful critical points you make, I’d most like to hear a response (from a meditation/mindfulness advocate) to this point:

    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.

    Contemporary meditation and mindfulness rhetoric is so run-through with a belief in the possibility of “direct seeing,” “clear apprehension,” “just noticing,” and that sort of thing that the idea of perception as an ideologically effected and effecting action would be terribly destabilizing. What would come of, for instance, the necessary subscription to “non-judgementalism” and “non-reactivity,” much less “seeing things as they are”? Even those affects would just prove to be effects, wouldn’t they?

    I’d like to hear an informed response from practitioners. But you and I both know that kinds of comments we’ve been getting from them on this post–defensive, even nasty, definitely not productive.

  6. Certainly I wouldn’t expect to see any serious response to this point. Such radial dualism is central to Mindfulness, and just about all other Western Buddhist meditation practices. The most I’d expect is that they will claim that they don’t believe in any such thing as a dualistic mind…then go on describing exaclty that dualism over an over again.

    Yes, I have not approved comments like “shut the fuck up” and “read more sutras” (both direct quotes from rejected comments). I also won’t approve comments from those who clearly did not read the essay, and are just responding angrily to what they guess I would say if they did read it.

    One concern I have is that those who are taken as critics of Mindfulness, like Thatcher was, are often not disagreeing at all with the basic assumptions at work. They all unquestioningly assume the Lockean empiricist subject, and the structuring fantasy of an escape to imaginary plenitude.

    I don’t expect a serious response–the best we can hope for is to make those not invested in this practice more aware of its assumptions and effects.

  7. Perhaps I can timidly enter the fray to provide your solicited response, although I don’t consider myself an advocate for any particular ideology, let alone something so narrowly defined and foreign to my understanding as Lockean empiricist dualism (I am just a humble farmer, not an academic).

    As a way of addressing first things first, I think we may profit from a more thorough reading of the term sati, or mindfulness as it is customarily rendered (I believe a direct translation is closer to remembrance) and an examination of its role within the practice of Southern Buddhism (again, can’t speak for insight practitioners or the like as I am Theravadin). The purpose, or skill is perhaps a better way of framing it because it is means rather than end, of sati is to redress one’s misperceptions about consciousness and its objects through the act of remembering (in this sense, it is a critique, something this blog seems inordinately fond of). What is being remembered? Appropriate attention to the dhamma. Not any one particular attention, but attention that is useful given whatever the present moment has offered us to contemplate.

    It is thus a way of reconciling the paired opposites of conceptual thought, in order to develop a balanced stance upon which we can proceed along the path. If the mind had no ability to develop the skillfulness necessary to see the futility of choosing one side or another in the thicket of views, then there would be no reason to meditate at all. In this sense mindfulness is an action- the directing of the mind towards what is appropriate to remember about the way things are. And the development of skillfulness is at the very core of why we choose to absorb the mind in the present. That skillfulness can manifest itself as both a contemplation of the lovely and beautiful, and the feeling of mudita that this evokes, or in the type of disenchantment that Cynthia Thatcher describes as the fruit of mindfulness. Seeing these things as opposed, rather than interconnected, is at the core of the problem with discriminative thinking, and provides a window into the need to develop the heart which holds all dualisms within the boundless faculty of wisdom.

    Exactly which ideology that post-dates the teachings by thousands of years this is an exposition of, I am highly curious to gain a greater understanding of, which is why I have chosen to read this blog (although sensitive to its tendency to shed heat over light from time to time, as well as general puzzlement with the idea of ascribing currently fashionable intellectual trends to the ideas of 2500 years prior).

    The objections raised about how action plays into the role of the meditation practice is worthy of much longer considerations than the call of the plow will allow me to indulge in at the moment. It will have to suffice that by divorcing the practice of mindfulness from some of the faith-based ideas of Buddhism (re-birth and kamma specifically) we arrive at the path to your critiques of Western Buddhism, which I share although on very different grounds. Namely, that by approaching Buddhism from a self-help perspective (as well as from a philosophical one like this blog does, I might add) we narrow our focus to particulars in the search for an essential practice, idea, or component. The analogy that Thanissaro Bhikku uses is that of the hologram- all parts can be elaborated from one section, but one section does not reveal the entire object without elaboration to the whole.
    But skillful action, is at the heart of the Buddha’s message for how we ought to live our lives.

    Also, I hope you will accept my sincere apologies on behalf of the people who were aroused to anger based on your thoughtful and well-written critique. Loving-kindness is a difficult part of the practice, that I struggle with often. Apologies as well for these un-edited and poorly formed thoughts, offered as the fruit of my humble gifts in communication and Buddhist practice.

  8. Yes, we could benefit from trying to understand the original meaning of terms like sati. This is kind of my point here. I don’t see this essay as a critique of anything to do with Buddhism, but as a critique of a particularly American ideological practice which is usually given the label Buddhism.

    I agree that it is not helpful to try to “ascribe current trends” to old ideas–that was my point. When we are sure that the Lockean neologism “consciousness” is the proper translation for several different Pali terms, we are probably missing the point, and not really reading the Pali text at all, just reinventing it.

    For me, the critique of all assumptions just is the proper form or practice–but clearly this is more of a philosophical practice. I’m not terribly interested in what Glenn calls “the principle of sufficient Buddhism.” Any kind of Buddhism that says the sutras contain all the answers is of no interest to me at all–so I never bother trying to critique it. What I critique is ideology at work in the world I live in. Certainly, if that’s not of interest to you, you needn’t be bothered by it.

    Don’t bother apologizing for other people’s comments–I’m sure they don’t feel an apology is needed, and neither do I. My critiques do threaten their comforting beliefs and often their livelihood, so their hostility is to be expected. I’ll continue to ignore it, though.

  9. Kyle (#9). Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you would agree that what you say is a good example of how decision functions. Briefly, decision is a circularity of thought that, along with the principle of sufficiency that Tom mentions, constitutes x-buddhism. In your comment the x = Southern Buddhism/Theravada, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, mindfulness (as cognitive ability), Mindfulness (as ideology), Western Buddhism, and some seemingly presupposed but unelaborated True Buddhism (“the Buddha’s message”). In my thinking, the primary pivot around which x-buddhist decision turns is, as you put it “the dhamma.” That is, all of the ideas you present in your comment have already, in advance of your presenting them, been decided by “the dhamma.” Just take the idea of “skillful action.”

    The purpose, or skill is perhaps a better way of framing it because it is means rather than end, of sati is to redress one’s misperceptions about consciousness and its objects through the act of remembering (in this sense, it is a critique, something this blog seems inordinately fond of). What is being remembered? Appropriate attention to the dhamma. Not any one particular attention, but attention that is useful given whatever the present moment has offered us to contemplate….In this sense mindfulness is an action- the directing of the mind towards what is appropriate to remember about the way things are.

    The problem is precisely that this is an ideological practice in the guise of a universalizable, generically human one. Calling it ideological is not a damning accusation. It is just an assessment that means to point out the kind confusion that systems of thought like your x-buddhism engender and perpetuate. Let’s say that we agree in the possibility of “skillful action.” Such a possibility is, after all, a feature of the original post. My question to you would be: what generic, non-decisional resources does x-buddhism offer toward this end? The trick here is that you will have to leave behind “the heart of the Buddha’s message for how we ought to live our lives.”

    If nothing else, thinking through this question might allow you to see that we are not offering a “philosophical’ perspective on Buddhism, and that critique is rarely, if ever, “inordinate” (we’ve never had enough of it).

  10. Okay, wow, wow, and wow again. Tom, this intervention looks very promising. Well I have always thought you needed to keep banging your head against the wall, Marx did, Engels did, why shouldn’t you have to persist in the face of universal disparagement? That’s how this stuff works. The ideas of those who give up because they were misunderstood never make the difference they ought to have. That Edison quote about perspiration, I guess.

    I am very excited about the essay Shaun links above. I have not heard of, let alone investigated, either Guy Standing or Ambedkar. But I have been arguing for some years now, I think, that SNB lacks and needs to develop a class perspective. This essay seems to point in that direction. If (quite possible) its foundations are unsound, let’s find out why. On a first reading I did not detect an obvious flaw.

    Many thanks to Shaun/Bevis for participating here. Glenn pointed out long ago (see Organizational Notes #34, posted 11/24/14) that the demographics of Western Buddhists suggest “that such people are in a position to effect social change, if they wanted to. It seems they don’t want to.” They don’t, surely at least in part for the reasons Shaun cites. We must stop fantasizing that we can change their minds. (Most of them, anyway; we can recruit valuable activists from that milieu, but we won’t be able to build a movement based on it.) We must find a way to orient our discourse towards a social grouping with revolutionary potential. Is there such a thing as a “Buddhist precariat”? Does it have such potential? I don’t know. I am in favor of finding out!

  11. I get your point, David. On the other hand, judging by the response to this post, I’m still just banging my head. Most commenters seem to be under the impression that I am somehow attacking their true/pure/(Therevadin?) Buddhism and advocating the superiority of Western philosophy. That’s just the internet, I guess–mostly a way to waste an afternoon.

    Shaun’s post is terrific. It is tangentially related to the point I’m making here, in that it suggests we need to take action, and just stop looking for approval from the New Brahmins selling us this fantasy of eternal bliss. What he is saying, though, is much more important to the world at large than the small point I’m trying to make here–so go read the post everybody, and discuss it!

    I’ve been familiar with Standing’s idea for a few years now, but I’ve been in the precariat for fifteen years (without having a term for it). With four university degrees, working at multiple time-limited part-time jobs for about half what the full time workers are making for the same work, with intermittent periods of unemployment, my average yearly income has been below the poverty level for several years now. (Granted, it’s partly my fault–after several years of hoping for steady employment, I’ve taken in the past five years or so to doing and saying things I know will prevent my being hired for another gig at that job.)

    So, what do we do? Standing offers (in his “Charter” for the precariat) suggestions for concrete actions–but they are often very specific to the British situation. What do we do here, exactly? What concrete action should we take? Maybe readers can make some suggestions at Shaun’s blog?

    I’m always willing to do the work for such a party of the precariat–but I absolutely don’t have the personality to lead such things.

  12. Mindful practitioners are always going on about the “beautiful breath”, which is sensory experience, so I agree with you Tom, Thatcher’s positions seems incoherent. If we lose all desire for the “beautiful” breath doesn’t that bring mindfulness practice to a full stop? (I’m not sure that the breath is all that beautiful, but watching it does make me feel a bit calmer… for a short while…) You suggest that in watching the breath we are buying into an ideology, and being part of that nice ideology of Buddhism is what gives us a warm glow. But I’m a highly sceptical individual, wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but do find watching the breath sometimes leads to euphoria, and usually at makes me calmer. I think it might be a purely physiological thing, but I don’t buy into the dogma of biological determinism either – all I see is that the practice of watching the breath leads to some beneficial results – makes me feel a bit happier “in the moment” and for some time after.

    I don’t agree that all mindfulness teachers insist that we have “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.” Maybe B. Alan Wallace or Ricard do, it sounds Tibetan (?!) But do Kabat Zinn or Fronsdal ever say that kind of thing, if so tell me where ’cause I’ve never seen or heard them say this. The only thing all mindfulness teachers say is “watch the breath”. And what’s wrong with that?

    I also disagree with your, “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.” I don’t say that, I just watch my breath and it (sometimes) can become intensely pleasurable. But I’m not holding on to any ideology, not thinking “this is beyond the duality of pleasure and displeasure.” I’m just watching the breath, and it;s sometime pleasurable, that’s all I think about it (after the event… during I’m just waching the breath…)

    I also disagree with, “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… the instructor.”

    I don’t think I’m “among the chosen”. I just watch the breath and it makes me happy now. I’m not thinking about the next life. (If pressed, I would say I don’t think there is one!) I don’t attend meditation classes these days so I’m not under the gaze of anyone. Instead of tilting at “straw meditation instructors” or “Tibetan extremists”, which is a waste of time, why not look at the “best of breed” and say where they are going wrong ideologically? If you can. I just listened to Fronsdal’s first recommended Dhamma talk, that might be something worth taking on, It doesn’t portray any of the negative ideologies you mention, as far as I can see. It’s here:


    Your point, “the limited enjoyment of sitting and doing nothing wears out… and so most people lose interest in mindfulness after a few months”, does click with me. I tend to take an obsessive interest in something for a few months, and then my interest wears out. But this is true of everything (classical music, chess, socialist activism, reading novels, mindfulness…) I just had an angry attack of frustration after a bad loss in internet chess, and thought it was rather ridiculous I was having such a violent emotional reaction about a silly game. So now I’m back to taking interest in mindfulness again… and it’s working so far… calmed the frustration nicely… but (given previous experience) I may just lose interest again. I think happiness researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”.

    So how do we take real action in our lives, and generate some real critical thinking, to get to a state where we are continually reducing our suffering, and making ourselves really happy with life. Mindfulness, chess, music, novels, socialist activism… it’s all just a merry go round producing no lasting satisfaction for me, or anyone one else, as far as I can see…
    You seem to be suggesting that “the path” be a never ending Sceptic/Socratic onslaught on all ideologies and practices. But I’ve also tried that, it’s a natural tendency of mine, and it’s almost as stressful as internet chess.

  13. I think you’ve just demonstrated my point, Mal. Thanks.

    If you find ideological critique “stressful,” you’ve obviously never actually done it–give it a try some time. Maybe find a good teacher who can help explain to you where you’re mistaken in your belief that you have done it? When you are critiquing ideology successfully, it is not in the least “stressful.” Stress is a product of ideological interpellation.

  14. David (#13). I agree with you and Tom about Shaun’s post. Just a quick note (I’m supposed to be preparing for a seminar this evening): an essential feature of non-buddhism is a re-description or re-usage of x-buddhist material in the form of a buddho-fiction. I have been reluctant, to say the least, to engage in such a fable up to now. The reason is that x-buddhists would be too quick to read it as yet another iteration of Buddhism, another x. The task of disabling the principle of sufficient buddhism in the thinking of x-buddhists seems to be virtually impossible. But it’s necessary to work out the strategy for doing so before creating a new fiction out of the material. I am working on that fabulation in my new book. The issues that Shaun brings up will be discussed. I hope we can have more conversations on this blog about them. Thanks.

  15. Tom (#14) my apologies for universal disparagement, I should have said (with regard to M&E as to you) vicious attacks by the ignorant, deluded and basely motivated. And as far as the interntet, poor creature that it is, well I am glad to have it nonetheless though perhaps the discipline M&E faced of having to get their thoughts into hard copy and distributed was in some ways salutary. And to comment even more injudiciously on the personality/leadership thing, well, the old Zen masters had the kyosaku, didn’t they? Besides, if your top theorist is also your best organizer you risk working him, or her, to death.

    In your essay I kept expecting to encounter infantile imaginary plenitude. Was I misinterpreting your thrust, or did you just favor somewhat different terminology in the context? (For anyone in whom that phrase engenders perplexity, I suggest spending $1.25 on The Faithful Buddhist at Amazon, but one essay from that collection deploying that terminology extremely effectively, “Nirvana and Depression,” can be found at http://www.perdrougge.se/sandbox/nirvana/.

    Shaun’s essay made me feel that the discourse developed here needs to be taken to those who have been denied the refuge of Buddhism. For personal reasons, his description of himself “as a queer immigrant in Canada, seeking refuge from transphobic abuse and  discrimination, exclusion from the regular job market, under conditions of constant precarity as a queer, as an immigrant, and as an underemployed academic worker who lived on student loans and contract teaching jobs, an academic career riddled by intermittent unemployment” resonated with me. It does not require us to endorse the idea that Buddhism can, in Western culture, provide refuge (though I believe both Tom and Shaun have pointed to ways in which it could if properly understood) in order to orient our discourse towards those who have experienced how this supposed benefit is reserved to privileged groups. Our current audience is largely unreceptive to the discourse developed at SNB because (please correct me Tom if I am wrong) infantile imaginary plenitude is precisely what they seek. That is because they lack more important things to worry about, like eating and keeping a roof over their heads, and they are desperate to evade the guilt they should feel for not having to worry about those things while others must.

    This is the issue I tried to pose in November of 2014. The SNB project needs to do what revolutionary projects have always needed to do, recruit cadre (pardon the archaic terminology) from the intellectual strata and build a movement based on the oppressed. The first part is hard, but I actually believe most of the potential recruits are here now. (Hi there!) I don’t think we have made much progress since November 2014 on the second part. I don’t know whether this is because we don’t know to go about it (I don’t) or because we are reluctant to confront the fact that this is what is on the agenda (I am, by the way, even though I am agitating for it).

    We are people who have thought about, even practiced, Buddhism — by necessity Western Buddhism, most of us — and our obligation is to determine what from that experience can be mobilized to challenge the hegemonic ideology. I don’t think “nothing” is an acceptable answer (there has been a trend in SNB toward that answer, if you ask me, and one of the things that excited me about your essay, Tom, was that it continues to refuse to make that concession). Buddhism as we have experienced it has the potential to challenge capitalism, or contribute to challenging capitalism, or tangentially reinforce some other challenge to capitalism. It isn’t important to determine which. It is important to find those potentials and bring them to the attention of communities that can benefit from them, communities that are already challenging the hegemonic ideology and for whom the discourse developed here can be an effective weapon. Actually, my experience in the LGBTTQQIAAP community (look it up, we have actually gotten there!) has been discouraging. The IIP fantasy appeals to even the most egregiously dispossessed! Well, if delusion lacked appeal, the task of the ruling class would be much more difficult and the invention of Buddhism might have been superfluous.

  16. Tom: “I think you’ve just demonstrated my point, Mal. Thanks.”

    Which specific point? You made several. Your excellent point, I think, was, “the limited enjoyment of sitting and doing nothing wears out… and so most people lose interest in mindfulness after a few months.” This has happened to me several times. This time it only took one day. I quite enjoyed Fronsdal’s talk, and it did bring a little calm to my day, for a short while, anyway. But this morning I couldn’t be bothered listening to his second talk. Instead I listened to a radio programme on Rosa Luxembourg, but found it rather tedious: the usual leftist spiel, going nowhere. (You might like it, “In Our Time”, BBC Radio 4…) Instead I fancied studying the Bh7+ sacrifice, so did that. That was quite interesting, maybe I’ll stick with chess. Then I fancied seeing if you’d responded, thinking a good argument might be amusing, even if a bit stressful. Thank’s Tom, your abuse livened up my day a bit!

    Anyone with half a brain must have done some ideological critique, otherwise they’d never vote. So I have done it. I often get obsessive and “het up” about things so maybe I make my criticism of prevailing political ideologies (in the UK) more stressful than it need be. But isn’t serious thinking always a bit stressful? I mean if someone opposed Maggie Thatcher and her Blatcherite descendents for 40 years, without success, wouldn’t you expect that someone to be feeling a bit stressed? Wouldn’t you expect them, perhaps, to seek escape into Buddhism or chess? In fact, don’t they deserve to seek such an escape?

    Anyway, you’ve intrigued me with your idea of non-stressful ideological critique. Any good books on that? Know any good teachers in the London UK area? I don’t attend leftist political meetings any more; they always seemed to full of stressed out, angry people. No fun. Maybe I should try and find a cooler bunch of politicos. Then again I hate meetings, so I should probably just stick to arguing on the internet.

  17. Mal: I probablfy shouldn’t have given such a flippant answer. However, I’ve answered this question so many times over the years, it often seems futile to bother giving another serious response. In brief: certainly Kabat-Zinn does not claim he is advocating an atman–as I said in the post (and many, many, other times), he says he is not doing so; however, the existence of such an atman is required in order for anyone to have the kind of “bare attention” or judgement-free perception that he claims we can achieve. As Hume explains about empiricism, while denying the existence of the soul, it assumes that one does exist. This confusion is essential to the success of the project of mindfulness, which includes the attempt to make thinking, particularly about something true about the world, stressful and unpleasant. Unlike Zizek, who sees mindfulness as a way to revitalize and then go back out in the world, my point. Is that mindfulness is much more invidious, working to make it seem unimportant and even painful to think clearly and correctly about the world. When you find ideological analysis unpleasant, it has worked. And no, voting does not require that one has done any ideological analysis at all–quite the opposite. Voting requires being fully interpellated in and ideology and failing to analyze it–this is the nature of American, and British, politics–arguing that you have the truth and the other guy has an ideology, and failing to do real ideological analysis. If you really want to read about this, try Jameson’s “Handbook of Ideological Analysis,” (it’s in his collection Valences of the Dialectic), or just read Althusser’s ISA essay.

    David: Yes, I was referring to the concept of “IIP,” just not in exactly those terms–many people still dismiss anything that uses any Lacanian terminology, and I was hoping to make the point clear to those suffering from phobia of psychoanalytic theory. I agree that many in the LGBTQ… community probably have the same fantasy of IIP–they often don’t want equality in any real way–they just want to be the ones with the high-paying jobs, the ones in the position of privilege. This has certainly been the problem, in my experience, with working-class heterosexual white men on the left: their real fantasy is not to have true equality, but to be the one who is moved out of the working class into the position of wealth and privilege. When they see that even under socialism, they’ll still have to work, they lose interest in leftist politics. Think of folks like John Dos Passos, Jack London, Ernest Poole…the list could go on. Personally, my difficulty with “building a movement” is that it seems to me that it needs to be done, in part, with people getting together and deciding on a productive action in response to the present situation–and this is something I am not at all good at. I’m perfectly willing to go to meetings, work on some project, etc., but I am not at all effective in getting other people motivated to do such things–I am not an effective leader. This has been an interest of mine my whole life–what exactly motivates people to join and participate in a group? If I could solve that problem, if anybody could, we’d be much further along by now in advancing the cause of socialism.

    One more point: I agree that Buddhism does have something important to offer. But my approach is to avoid “translating” Buddhism into the terms of Romanticism or Empricism or Poststructuralism or whatever, and to attend to those concepts in Buddhist thought that have no equivalent anywhere in my own frame of reference–this calls attention to the ideological structuring of my thought, which “translation” attempts to avoid noticing. Also, we can use Buddhism, perhaps, to create a new kind of ideology–that has always been part of its function. It was used to create an empirialist ideology in Sri Lanka, when the British decided to teach the people the “correct” understanding of their own “religion,” but it could also be used to produce other kinds of ideology. My favorite among Laruelle’s books (of the few I’ve read) is Christo-Fiction, where he argues that we need to “forge a fiction capable of upholding fidelity”, to produce an ideology to support our goals.

  18. 20

    Been hearing so much about the musical Hamilton and how people are so moved by it. Leaving the theater in tears. What’s the result? More entrenchment into the current capitalist ideology. Nobody is leaving the theater ready to start a movement. Rather, they are texting their friends about it and listening to interviews with the writer his deep meanings of the musical.

    What ideology does the art create or perpetuate? What ideology does mindfulness create or maintain? That’s what we need to look at in our ideological analysis, right? Definitely not the deep meanings or the post-modern interpretations. I’m still trying to figure out the mechanism of how art perpetuates ideology. It just seems to happen and trying to explain it to someone is hard for me. I assume lack of any sort of thinking much less ideological analysis has something to do with it.

  19. I’m really curious myself about the ideology being produced by Hamilton. Historically, he’s a classic example of the privilege of white men from the upper classes–even being illegitimate and abandoned by his parents, he was provided for by other members of his class, provided with money and an education, etc. And then, of course, he was one of the architects of the American capitalist state, making sure the US government would use debt and military power to promote the interests of the commercial manufacturing class for…well, at least until now.

    So, how do they spin this in the play to make it appealing? Everyone I speak to suggests it becomes a story about minorities being able to climb the social ladder in America, a sort of libertarian fantasy, but I haven’t seen it myself. I’d love ot hear a really thorough ideological critique from someone who knows the play–I’ll likely never bother to spend the money and time to see it myself.

    Maybe, as you say Craig, the ideology is best found in what they do–feeling deeply and using social media to intensify that emotion. Maybe that’s the real ideology at work? Like when everyone leaves Avatar and says what a great message it conveys, all about environmentalism and peace and the power of love, and then goes right to Best Buy to get the new 3-D TV to watch it on, and spends hours playing the video game pretending to beat the villain to death with a robot. The ideology is in what we do, not the ostensible moral of the tale, Your account of Hamilton reminded me of Philip Dick’s novel “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Erdritch.” Dick was good at exposing the real working of our ideologies, including the importance and power of fantasy as a substitute for action.

    My concern is to move away from producing neoliberal ideology, and even from critiquing it, to producing a new ideological practice that might allow some action. I just don’t really know how to do that yet–and I’m not sure if art can do it. Ambedkar, as Shaun has pointed out, was able to do this in India with Buddhism–to produce an ideological practice that had some real impact in the world. Maybe that’s a better way to go than writing novels nobody will ever read?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s