Does anyone have any interest in conducting a bit of research into a question that has haunted this blog for years: what kind of collective subject is the Western Buddhist?

I don’t mean scholarly research here, but a more anthropological approach involving participation in a specific Western Buddhist practice, the “online retreat.”

Shambhala is currently broadcasting such a retreat, free for this week only (with, of course, the hope that participants will pay the $147 to get copies of the recordings). The link is:

What I have in mind here is not any attempt to disrupt or influence the retreat or its discussion. Like good anthropologists we would need to remain relatively unnoticed. I also am not interested in debating the teachings, in catching them out in errors or contradictions, etc. The goal I have in mind is simply to discuss the teachings presented, and the comments posted, and try to decipher what kind of a collective subject is being produced by this discourse.

I can try to respond to some of the recordings—but there will be three a day, and surely thousands of comments. So I would guess any clear conceptualization of the kind of discourse this is could only be done by multiple participants.

To begin, perhaps just look at the two short “preview” recordings posted yesterday. Holly Gayley offers her advice on avoiding the pursuit of “bliss” or a “bubble of peace” on the cushion. She suggests that the task of meditation is to realize that the “discourses” or “spinning thoughts” or “rehearsed scripts” we participate in every day are a mask for a “deep” underlying core of pain, and the task is to “relate to that pain.” What kind of subject is produced when we think of our world this way—instead of, say, conceiving of those social discourses as the “real” that causes this internal sense of pain, we are taught to think of these discourses as relatively insignificant products of the already existing deep pain?

Gayley suggests that those who frequent meditation retreats get to be “really familiar with” these “spinning thoughts” and “rehearsed scripts.” Perhaps this gives us some clue to the function of this practice? To reify and externalize the social discourses, and produce some kind of discourse in which one can remove from them and do…what exactly?

Then Rick Hanson suggest exactly the opposite: that in fact the task of meditation is to produce exactly this state of peace and calm that Gayles warns won’t occur. For Hanson, what he calls the “green zone” of “unshakeable happiness love and peace” is what we must accomplish to begin meditation. We should, he says, feel “already full” so that we can “default to the resting state” where “nothing is missing.” He calls this a “scientifically plausible way to a state of being with little basis for craving.” We should conceive of ourselves in a sort of behaviorist stimulus-response manner, resting in contentment until we are provoked to unpleasant thought and action by some lack, then returning to our blissful inertia once the lack is met. What kind of subject is produced by thinking of ourselves this way…instead of, perhaps, considering the interaction with the world as a source of joy?

Both of these teachers, clearly, have an understanding of the concept of emptiness: for both, what is dependently arisen is “unsubstantial” or illusory, and what is real (because not dependently arisen either socially of phenomenally) is the core of our deeper feelings and perceptions. But the concern here is not to debate whether this is the “correct understanding.” Rather, the interest is to trace the kinds of subjects such beliefs lead to when used to structure these specific practices.

We could also consider the discourse of the comments. Those writing introductory comments seem to be suspiciously distributed (only a few from New York, for instance, and just as many from distant lands and small cities in the Midwest or Southwest), heavily weighted with therapists of various kinds, and fond of the terms “path” and “journey.”

My main interest, though, is in discussing the fifteen recordings (perhaps along with any discussion that might follow in comments). Clearly, I can’t address them all, but I’ll try to address a couple of them. Anyone interested in contributing, just email me (, and I’ll add your contribution to this post, instead of putting it in the comments. The goal here, though, is not to argue with the teachers, but to try to describe the kind of collective x-buddhist subject being (re)produced by this now familiar Western Buddhist form of practicing: the online retreat.

The implied promise of this online retreat is that it will teach us to use meditation to get a clearer grasp on reality.  But perhaps we can consider it from outside its World, and discuss what kind of reality this practice works to produce?


After Day One:

One interesting point in this retreat is how explicit it is about what Master Tutte always tried to teach us about Western Buddhism: it is mostly a marketing ploy, trying to sell us…well, more marketing ploys…and so on, and so on… With the promise, apparently, that eventually we will buy that book or that pricey retreat that will qualify us to start selling our own bestselling books. This idea of marketing nothing but empty promises does seem to be one of the major functions of the term “Buddhism” in America.

But still, there is a certain kind of subject for whom such practices are operative. I’m still trying to figure out exactly who that is, and what kind of things they do, or avoid doing, in the world.

The big question, that Ryan Stagg asks and the presenters repeat, is “how does mediation help us access reality.” The idea that “reality” is something that must be “accessed” with some special procedure is a particularly modern one, so it seems we have a modern/capitalist subject of some variety. From the scientific method to deconstruction, we moderns always understand our common way of engaging the world as somehow missing what is most important, and the technique of breaking through it to how things really are promises greater happiness and freedom.

There also seems to be a central loneliness or sense of profound isolation and emptiness, in both the presenters and those commenting. The many comments about being alone, and having no group to practice with, or the frequent mentions of some loss or rejection as the motivation to practice meditation. And the sheer desperation of the teachers to sell those books, to reach the broadest audience, to be popular no matter what kind of nonsense they have to spout to get that spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Wright seems a bit confused and desperate, like he feels the meaninglessness and absurdity of his reductivism and wants someone to tell him how smart he is for explaining it, like he needs some contact that exceeds his ostensible belief that we are all just mechanisms to reproduce genes.
Piver puts on the most polished show, sitting cross-legged in her gauzy dress and denim jacket, repeating vague metaphors that say nothing at all. She seems so tightly wound that one is almost afraid that if Ryan pointed out to her that she answers only in vague metaphors and cliches she might snap. Or just drop the name of her exotic sounding teacher a few more times?


I have one suggestion, so far: the variety in the presentations seems to function as a kind of complete circle, each teacher taking a different side to circle the subject within, and all seeking to ward off different approaches of that one threat: serious thought about the real causal power of social structures. This is, of course, what the neoliberal subject can’t tolerate: the idea that the system we live in, the social practices we collectively produce, might be collectively changed.

So Piver tells us that “from nowhere” something cuts in and tells us “you’re thinking. You wake up. Where does that come from? I don’t know the answer.”

What kind of a subject do we become if we accept this? If we accept that the thought that you were thinking is not itself a thought—that the only thing that counts as thoughts are those random things that go through our mind without efforful control? And she says that this interruption comes from the “same place” as “love and wisdom and insight and creativity.” She has no idea where that “place” might be, but it is certainly the source of anything good—all those terms valued positively in Romantic discourse, that arrive once we stop thinking, and are beyond our control. All, of course, terms we can never define (what is creativity? Wisdom?), but just know are vaguely good things that cannot possibly be produced intentionally in social practices.

Wright wards off the social from the other side, with a kind of popular pseudoscience. He assures us that everything is a matter of biology (it isn’t mystical gifts of creativity from some spirit world here, but the demands of a reductive mechanistic causality made possible by the frequent use of scare quotes to avoid the need for real explanations). Wright’s subject is the perfect neoliberal, envisioning the world as beginning in scarcity and competition, a vicious struggle for survival. Buddhism functions then as a substitute for Hobbes’s state, allowing us to cause a bit less suffering to each other as we each pursue our biologically determined desires.

Wright’s idea of the Buddhist concept of nonself is telling in this regard. He understands it to mean that we have no control over…well, anything. Our thoughts, our actions, everything is mechanistically determined, and our thoughts are pointless epiphenomena invented after the fact for no apparent reason. This subject powerless over forces beyond any control, isolated and at best hoping not to cause too much suffering to others, still seems to be lacking something…

It would seem that the gaze that would promise this atomistic and powerless subject a future reward, or reassure them they are special in the present, can only come in the form of book sales and an audience willing to shell out their $147 dollars…

But the one thing that all these teachers guard agains is the consideration of how social practices might produce part of our delusions and desires. That, and the terrifying possibility that we might, in some kinds of social formations, get some enjoyment out of impermanent things like work and engaging in the world. That they might be enjoyable exactly because of their impermanence. What if something like planting crops or building a house or playing music were enjoyable exactly because it doesn’t go on endlessly? The inability to think that meaning might come from the social, rather than biology or the mysterious beyond, suggests a kind of desperate, non-functioning, idle subject.

I'm an overeducated member of the precariat class, mostly engaged in writing books and essays nobody much cares to read.

52 Comment on “Reality and Retreat

  1. Pingback: Imperfect Buddha Podcast 13.1: Theory & Practice & Happy New Year! | Post-Traditional Buddhism

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