Immanent Critique for the People!

Several readers have contacted me about more hands-on exercises like Tom Pepper’s post “Reality and Retreat.” That post challenged us to do a kind of anthropological study of an online Shambhala retreat.

Maybe some of you will be interested in engaging the intelligence-enhancing practice of immanent critique. It’s fun, and edifying, too!

Recall what art historian Lydia Goehr taught us a while back:

To [Theodor] Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself… This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.

This practice isn’t content with a slick dismantling of its object. I think that most readers of this blog will agree that, in the case of x-buddhist materials, that’s as easy as it is endless. The more difficult, and more satisfying, practice is entering the object as it presents itself, and looking at it on its own terms. For example, when our material proclaims “Our mission is pretty simple: we exist to enable humans to feel good,” we do not doubt it. Rather, we set to work exploring just how it validates its very own premise.

Doing so, we often begin to notice contradictions, aporia, and a rich assortment of other confusions and obscurations at work. That’s when the fun begins! Since we wholeheartedly desire “to enable humans to feel good” no less than the teacher or community that we are critiquing, we begin to note if, when, and in what manner things start to go awry. It is not, or at least not initially, a question of right and wrong that interests the critic, but rather that of production. So, in our example, we start to wonder who exactly this “human” is, and what exactly “to feel good” is made to entail. In other words, what is the ideal creation of the material? In this manner, we can get at the “social truth content” that the material itself is often blissfully unaware.

I suggest that we take as an example the MNDFL Meditation website. That’s where that mission statement that I quoted as an example is from. I suggest this site because it strikes me as an excellent example of a quintessentially early-twenty-first-century American phenomenon: Neoliberal Buddhism. To my mind, MNDFL represents the completion of a process that lies at the very heart of the nineteenth-century Western Buddhist project; namely, the seamless grafting of depotentialized social-revolutionary concepts (disenchantment, nihility, vanishing, non-self, etc.) onto the indefatigable capitalist desiring machine. As you will quickly see, we could thus call MNDFL “Boutique Buddhism,” precisely the form of presentation which we would expect of a heavily capitalist-inflected Buddhism.

How might you begin to “read” the site? I suggest applying basic categories to it, and observe how each of them is in play. For example, peruse the teacher page and start with the raw matter of the human body. Beyond even basic categories like gender, race, and ethnicity, what kind of bodies (face, weight, skin, teeth, etc.) are the order of the day at MNDFL? Are there exceptions? Do these apparent exceptions appear begrudged or awkward? Are they celebrated? Hidden or minimized? What do you make of these bodies? What do they tell us about the “social truth content” of the site? Try applying any of these categories as well.

Discourse. Which of those Lacanian discourses is being utilized: master, hysteric, university, or analyst?

Ideology. How does the site support the reproduction of our current social relations? Or does it rather present beliefs and practices that counter the status quo?

Subjectivity. What sort of person, acting in what sorts of ways in the real world, is presented? What might a one-word summary of this subject be?

Desire for what is being aroused? Or put another way, what is being promised such that a $115 MNDFL SE MOONSTONE MALA or a $200 cushion (sold out) appear reasonable acquisitions?

Hyperreality. Is there some idea of a “real” that is more real than our shared reality?

The Big Other. What sort of references are being made to potentially accessed meaning and power?

And don’t forget to consider imaginary plenitude or the curative fantasy!

32 responses to “Immanent Critique for the People!”

  1. matthewoconnell Avatar

    Reblogged this on Post-Traditional Buddhism and commented:

    This blog is on a brief hiatus as I am too busy to dedicate any time to writing posts. I am putting together a more significant text for a journal, which I might reword into a short series of posts here at a later date. Finally, I intend to write a piece on resistance as the first post back. For now, here’s a posting at the Speculative non-Buddhism site positing the idea of neo-liberal Buddhism. I can’t help but think Mr Wallis is on to something.

  2. Mal Avatar

    The home page starts by saying “MNDFL exists to enable humans to feel good” but says nothing about what it really means to “feel good”, and doesn’t provide scientific backing for it’s methods of “feeling good”. So the potential customer is assumed to be making a mindless acceptance of what MNDFL means by “feeling good”, and also acceptance of its methods for achieving this undefined state. Of course, MNDFL must avoid mentioning science, or people might start digging and come up with books like “The Buddha Pill” that show there is no good evidence for any of this stuff working. It’s just another snake oil sales pitch.

  3. Mal Avatar

    That home page picture is revealing of who is acceptable. The neoliberal avoidance of gender, colour and age foix pas is evident. But there are no obese people. The Buddha was hardly a lightweight, so why not let some overweight people through the portals of shangri la? There are also no obviously disabled people present. Musn’t spoil the image that meditation leads to neoliberal perfection, and that means no disability thank you. Also no people looking like tramps or drunks. No crazy wisdom thank you! That’s so sixties…

  4. kevinhushanderson Avatar

    No good evidence for “any of this stuff to work”, really? I suppose, “any of this stuff” does cover a lot of, well stuff so its hard to argue otherwise. Meanwhile over on The Lancet there is some “no good evidence” on some of the “stuff” perhaps you had in mind, or maybe not?

  5. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Mal. Isn’t the site saturated with notions, explicit and (mostly) implicit, about what it means “to feel good”? And doesn’t virtually ALL of the evidence point to the fact that this stuff “works”? MNDFL MEDITATION succeeds perfectly well. The question then becomes: succeeds in doing what?

    Recall that our old pal Žižek argues that the problem with an organization like MNDFL and its meditation practices is not that it is some kind of bogus capitalist con. The problem is not, in other words, that it does not really work. The problem is that it does work, and indeed that it “works” in the precise manner that it claims. In presenting us with a “remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics,” and “allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit” (letting be, composure), as Žižek characterizes Western Buddhism generally, something like MNDFL “actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.” So, the answer to the question “what is it to feel good?,” passes right through the “social reality content” of the fact of neoliberal capitalist subjectivity assumed, apparently without qualm, by MNDFL. How does such a subject feel good? In brief, it strengthens resilience so that it may practice perpetual adaptability in the face of inescapable vulnerability. Being a thoroughly degraded subject, possessing minimal autonomy and agency, the MNDFL subject can act in one limit sphere only: the inner life. “Feeling good” is thus similarly degraded and diminished. And so on…

  6. wtpepper Avatar

    While I would agree that the real concern is what mindfulness actually does, what effect it has, when it “works,” it is also true that it does not seem to do what it is often claimed to do. Several years ago, before I started contributing to Glenn’s blog, I was very involved in a local Buddhist group, and studying counseling psychology in grad school. In one class, we were asked to write a paper on some “empirically validated” treatment, and I considered writing about mindfulness, specifically as a treatment for depression and alcoholism. I found several studies (there have been more since), and they mostly followed the same basic pattern: the participants reported feeling better, or having fewer cravings, but the incidence of recurrence of major depression or return to drinking was exactly the same. Nevertheless, the studies found mindfulness “effective” because the participants said it was working, even though it actually had no effect on the outcome. They felt less desire to drink, but drank just as much. They felt less stressed or unhappy, but had the exac same rate of recurrence of depression. It seems “effective” meant not much more than that the participants were more thoroughly deluded about their own mental states.

    I suspect that is what MNDFL is after, encouraging poor thinking and self-delusion. I would love to be able to attend a few classes, just to see what really goes on. But looking at the site, it is a bit creepy how much it looks like equivalent of what the gym was a decade or so ago (maybe still is?). Lots of classes, like the Pilates and spinning classes at the gym, lots of pictures of attractive and affluent young people. Also, very narcissistically focused. A sort of self-obsessed inward-turning idea of what will make us happy: don’t act in the world, certainly don’t think but focus on getting to “know” your own self better. In an emotional sense. I recently came across an interesting description of this phenomenon, suggesting that we have the need for some exploration of the world, the need to expand our capacity for interaction, and when this is denied us we sometimes turn “inward,” becoming obsessed with exploring our own “depths” as a substitute.

    Look at the class offerings: Breath, emotion, heart, energy, etc. All obsessively narcissistic, and no mention at all of thought about the nature of reality, or social interaction, or ethical concerns. Who is the person for whom a phrase like this makes sense: “emotions are simply thoughts with a lot of energy behind them”. Energy? Behind? Would going to classes at MNDFL require you to have the kind of limited intellect for which that seems to say something? Or are they designed to produce that kind of weak mind?

    My guess is, probably neither. If anyone goes to any of these classes, I’d like to hear about it, but it looks, from the website, like the real concern isn’t the nonsense of the course content so much as seeking a potential romantic partner willing to strike the new-age mating pose.

  7. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom. The more I peruse the MNDFL pages, the more convinced I am that narcissism is an intentional element of its rhetorical strategy. There is the narcissism of exaggerated self-focus, which you refer to. You also point to the narcissism of the dating gallery. Whatever else the Teachers Page is, it is presented on the model of a dating site. Somewhat bizarrely, the hue of that page and of everything on it is a kind of angelic white. Even many of the people of color appear strangely white. It also looks like an expensive stylist was hired the day the pictures were taken. This might seem a trivial point to some readers. But in a rhetorical analysis, nothing is too trivial for comment. I think the message being conveyed is that “feeling good” in our current culture requires you to become-desirable to others, to become an object of desire in and of itself. MNDFL can indeed thus help you feel good. The various elements of the Boutique Industry have, to my eyes, become indistinguishable from one another: gym, yoga studio, Omega-style mindfulness retreat, clothing store, hair salon, MNDFL Meditation center. All of them are selling ways for you to become desirable. In one sense or another, all of these Boutiques would agree that doing so requires that you learn how to breathe properly (and in the present moment); to regulate your emotions (enhance the “pro-social” ones, decrease those toxic ones like anger and sadness); to grow your heart; and to cleanse and properly govern your energy. So, the feel good today, you must make yourself attractive to yourself and others in the very specific ways that MNDL proposes. At its very core, this is indeed deeply narcissistic.

    If we wanted to extend the research beyond the MNDFL site, I could point out that the Lodro Rinzler of the The Buddha Walks Into a Bar phase actually broadcasts the becoming-desirable emphasis of his teachings. For instance,

    “You let your motivation shine, and other people are attracted to your passion and commitment.”

    From the outset, Rinzler’s teaching seemed to be directed at the Everyone-Gets-A-Trophy generation. So, it’s a blend of You’re-Fantastic-Just-As-You-Are! and neoliberal Certain-Shit-Just-Ain’t-Gonna-Change-Bitches:

    “This [The Buddha Walks Into A Bar] isn’t your grandmother’s book on meditation. It’s about integrating that “spiritual practice” thing into a life that includes beer, sex, and a boss who doesn’t understand you. It’s about making a difference in yourself and making a difference in your world—whether you’ve got everything figured out yet or not.”

    “Patience from a Buddhist perspective is not a ‘wait and see’ attitude, but rather one of ‘just be there’… Patience can also be based on not expecting anything. Think of patience as an act of being open to whatever comes your way.”

    I guess one way to get what you want even when you don’t is to want what you get. I wonder if that’s what Rinzler teacher those young people at MNDFL.ED, people who I get the impression are supposed to reveal to us MNDFL’s commitment to “social justice.” I wonder if these apparently (?) underprivileged youths are taught to “Think of patience as an act of being open to whatever comes your way,” and so on. And, yes, you, too, can def make a difference in the world even though you have nothing unique whatsoever to offer it, no real social power, a mediocre capacity for thinking, and are apparently extremely gullible.

    In any case, from the videos I watched of Rinzler, he himself smacks of that famous Shambhala over-assuredness cum facileness that makes it embarrassing to read or watch Chogyam Trungpa today. Who could possible take seriously Rinzler’s attempt to cast the shallow, anything-goes, hodge-podge nature of the diverse meditation styles available at MNDFL as a tremendous strength? Of course, that very abundance of offerings is par with the capitalist marketplace, so it’s not surprising. What is surprising is that Rinzler even feels a need to explain. Watch, and see what you make of the irritating breathy NPR voice and the phony sincerity.

  8. wtpepper Avatar

    Interesting point, Glenn. The traditional spiritual grift depends on the “guru” figure seeming somehow special, so that his or her gaze can stand in for the gaze of the Other. The strikingly beautiful woman or the avuncular man, speaking just cryptically enough, saying little enough, to suggest they might have some real wisdom, with all the assurance of their tutelage under some even greater “guru.” But here, they seem to be taking a different approach—the one who should feel desirable and speical is the paying customer. Sort of like those high-end gyms that used to shun the steroid-inflated trainers. It isn’t hard to feel wiser and more appealing than Rinzler: he’s inarticulate in his videos, even in an obviously rehearsed speech, making convulsive hand gestures like its his first time speaking in front of a group, and he’s trying hard for the patronizing, condescending, supercilious tone that psychologists use, but coming off as a bad parody of an NPR show. (It might not work if he succeeded at the psychologist voice—as we learned in graduate school, the average number of therapy sessions clients will attend is 1.1–almost nobody comes back for a second session after being patronized in that annoying voice; yet all clinical psychology professors are sure that it is important to master it.). Rinzler’s failure to even do that is just embarrassing to watch. And really, who could watch these videos and not be completely convinced that despite what he says these “techniques” were, in fact, made up “last Tuesday”? Nobody could believe that what he does in those videos has been passed down for thousands of years, riight? So even his moronic claim that he believes it makes him seem, um, a bit pathetic.

    All of this suggest that you are probably right, the task here is to set up a kind of new-agey dating site, where the goal is to make the paying customer feel desirable. I wonder if this is why the teachers are all average-looking women (well, one slightly effeminate balding man), and the picture of the folks on the cushions are mostly thin, well-groomed men in expensive clothes? Women are the biggest target audience for this kind of thing, right? So they need to feel the teachers won’t outshine them and there will be enough of the right kind of men there to desire them (it wouldn’t do to be desireable to a bunch of paunchy middle-aged guys in jeans, of course).

    The scattershot approach, that any spiritual practice is equal, seems to work the same way. It isn’t a matter of understanding any specific teachings about reality—it’s all a matter of feeling superior to others who don’t have your peculiarly exotic spiritual practice. Because really, who needs to pay by the hour for a cushion and an idiot teacher at the front of the room just to meditate?

    And Rinzler does mention, yet again, the false claims about all the “scientific” evidence of the benefits of meditation. Evidence that simply does not exist outside vague claims in the popular press. How important is it, for mediation to “work” in this ideological way, that the participant believe the fake claims about “gray matter”? If they were shown that these claims are false, would the whole thing be less effective for them?

  9. Mal Avatar

    Here’s an article by a doctor who at last found time to read, in full, the nonsense published in journals like the Lancet:

    “Why is so much bad science published?

    It wasn’t until after my retirement that I had the time to read scientific papers in medical journals with anything like close attention. Until then, I had, like most doctors, read the authors’ conclusions and assumed that they bore some necessary relation to what had gone before. I had also naively assumed that the editors had done their job and checked the intellectual coherence and probity of the contents of their journals.

    It was only after I started to write a weekly column about the medical journals, and began to read scientific papers from beginning to end, that I realised just how bad — inaccurate, misleading, sloppy, illogical — much of the medical literature, even in the best journals, frequently was …”

    Fortunately there are still some decent thinkers out there who make it their job to bust bad science, like the authors of “The Buddha Pill”. Of course this book will be ignored by those who make money from the bad science that supports their efforts.

    And please don’t says “doctors busted big tobacco with scientific papers”; when the facts are really obvious then even bad scientists can get things right, but the “science” of meditation (like the “science” of nutrition…) isn’t in such a place.

  10. wtpepper Avatar

    I would agree that the “research” on mindfulness is of the kind described by Dr. Dalrymple in the article you’ve linked. it is easy to find an article that claims success in its conclusions, but if you read the detail you find they have done nothing at all to prove their claims. LIke most (perhaps all) research in psychology, it fails to even come close to proving its conclusions, relying on laziness or poor thinking on the part of the reading audience. It won’t make much difference, though, if you point this out. I’ve tried this for many years. You will only be accused of being “scientistic” and the response will be that mindfulness simply works in ways that can’t be quantified and empirically tested—and then they will go on claiming (falsely) that it has in fact been quantified and empircally tested. No x-buddhist teacher, not meditation teacher, and no psychologist, could possibly have the intellectual capacity to see the contradiction in this postion—if they did, they would not be able to succeed in those fields.

    So, the question Glenn is after, I take it, is not whether it has really been proven to cure cancer or whatever, but, given that we know it has no such effects, what purpose does it actually serve? How does mindfulness funciton? What does it enable the practiioner to do, or avoid doing?

    We all know it is doesn’t work at all for anyone who isn’t getting a paycheck out of it. If you’ve been around the Western Buddhist world for any time, you know countless people who have gone through the mindfulness craze, and then dropped it, and know only a couple, alway those paid to teach it, who stick with it (or claim to). I used to annoy my Buddhist friends constantly about this—they would all talk about how effective mindfulness was, how it made their lives so much better, they were less stressed, happier, more productive…but they all stopped doing it aftter six months or so. So, I would ask them, why did you stop? Would you start again? And they couldn’t answer the first question, but were adamant that no, they would never do mindfulness again. It seemed to evoke the kind of dread that one only hears about trips to the dentist or algebra homework.

    This site isn’t devoted to just Kabatt-Zinn style mindfulness, though. There seems to be a lot more at work here. Still, they do need to mention the “scientific proof,” if only in passing. We aren’t meant to believe it even exists, though. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, I think it’s just something we’re supposed to pretend to believe in, knowing full well it’s false. Sort of like back in the seventies when people spoke astrology as a pick-up line, while almost nobody seriously believed it. This is, after all, a kind of dating site, an attempt to create a new pick-up spot, right?

  11. Mal Avatar

    If you look at the shots of people meditating, no one is smiling. But go to the teachers page and the teachers have 1000 KW smiles. What’s that all about? Before and after? The sad pupils need to meditate, and when they do they will be happy smiley people like the teachers. But those teachers look like they are on a Brit. satire show, one making fun of American service staff putting on false smiles. It’s like a convention of air hostesses. No that’s unfair on air hostesses, who probably knock back a few beers and frown while complaining about the passengers, i.e., a much more human event then can ever happen in this “space”.

    “Our studios are meant to feel like home.” – this is above a picture of a room full of strange cushions and mats. (Is this a Brit. satire show?!) Anyway, what’s with the empty room full of soft furnishings? Maybe it’s trying to get across the idea of a retreat to the womb, something very attractive to stressed New Yorkers. Should have been red, but I guess the Tibetans have the copyright on that. All those whites and greys… pot plants… that reminds me of a corporate office! Clever way to make a New Yorker feel at home, an office womb. The founders have the modern corporate office look going on as well, suit no tie. That’s a strange title: “Chief Spiritual Officer”. Are we in the army now?

  12. Craig Avatar

    The first thing I noticed in the group picture was the sitting position. It’s that awful ‘knees up’ position which is impossible to maintain and is so damn uncomfortable. My hunch is that the picture was staged. Why is it so enticing? The clean white walls, the minimalism, the solid colors and of course the serene meditators. I used to see these types of pictures and say to myself, “I want that!”. Now my reaction is nausea and muscle memories of discomfort. Everyone is in their late 20s to early 30s. All have some sort of hipness to them which is probably intentional. And, of course, the obligatory ‘diversity’.

    I’m not sure how to interpret these observations. I’m definitely projecting lots of things that I struggle with. Definitely the emptiness of all this picture promises. It’s all marketing bullshit. The subject is the now millennial neoliberal. Pure capitalist subjects, like me! (although I’m Gen-X) Costumes are bought and worn. Hairstyles are made to look unkempt, but require a lot of work. Do they all have well-paying jobs? Probably not. Hoping to climb up some ladder or trying to find some empty box to sell. They somehow have money for expensive coffee and brunch though. Subject to the power of marketing. Thinking it’s all okay. Fleeting thoughts of the suffering in the world. And feeling absolutely miserable and depressed despite doing everything right!

  13. Craig Avatar


    I had never heard of the Buddha Pill. Interestingly, the author doesn’t do any sort of systemic critique, or subject critique that is going on here. Maybe a mention of false promises in the marketing of meditation, but not the system that allows for meditation to be sold.

  14. Danny Avatar

    Craig, You are certainly correct about the staged pictures. It seems every detail on this site has been professionally and carefully crafted, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed.
    I did a quick search on the Chief Executive Officer and discovered she is a daughter of famous TV director, James Furrows, co-creator of Cheers, among other notable achievements. My hunch is that there are some here that don’t have to work too hard, or maybe not at all, to get their payday…
    Great post Glenn and enjoying the enlightening comments, everyone.

  15. Mal Avatar

    Are you commenting on the “Buddha Pill” book or the article I linked to? Anyway, I think you are right in both cases, it very much concentrates on the lack of a good scientific basis for the claimed benefits of meditation. It doesn’t do the sort of analysis that Glenn is asking s to do.

    Amusing that the CEO is linked to Cheers, I was going to make the comment that these people might be happier going to a bar, or joining CAMRA:

    Analyse and compare…

  16. Danny Avatar

    Mal, ha, you are spot on! Listen this while perusing the super friendly MNDFL site:

  17. wtpepper Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about one of the questions Glenn asked in the initial post; what is the discourse of the MINDFL site?

    It seems to me it is operating as what Lacan calls the discourse of the university. They key is in what is being produced: castrated and desiring subjects. The “agent” role is played by the supposedly time-tested knowledge of all the different new-age spiritual practices, claimed to date back thousands of years and to have been passed on from one teacher to the next (although in fact most date back no further than the 70s, and have been passed on from one self-help book to the next). The “other” being addressed is the “objet petit a”, desire itself. This ancient easter wisdom addressses desire, promises fulfillment and imaginary plenitude…but all that is produced is some confused and deluded subjects, a bit poorer, more desirous than ever, desperate to move to the next new discourse of secrete special knowledge…

    The only mystery is what, exactly, is the “hidden” master signifier, the anchoring point of the symbolic system which must be protected while pretending the goal is actually profound knowledge. For the actual university, it is something like tradition, reverence for authority, acceptance of the existing divisions of disciplines as given and beyond question, etc. That is, all those master signifiers crucial to reproducing the current system and never changing it. So, what is the master signifier here? The only thing I can see is…money. The secret truth that what guarantees someone’s wisdom is their bank account, what proves they have the secrecy to imaginary plenitude is affluence. Is this the one thing we are trying hard not to see when we participate in discourses like this? Trying to pretend it is some mystical wisdom, not exchange value, that we worship, that runs out lives?

    This is an important question, if we want to help people break out of these destructive discourses. The more individuals that become subjects of such discourses, the more we all suffer. And the closer we come to destroying all life on our planet. How would we address subjects like Rinzler and his customers, in order to break them out of their sad delusions? I think it is not enough to avoid such nonsense ourselves. We live in a collectively produced socially constructed world, and we cannot escape the effects of such practices as this simply by refusing to participate, any more than we can escape pollution simply by not polluting ourselves.

  18. Danny Avatar

    Hey Tom. Very interesting comment. Hmm, money as the master signifier. I had been struggling with the question of discourse, leaning toward the discourse of the university (institution) but was lost as to the master signifiers?–Real Teachers, Real Traditions, Real Techniques was my best guess but didn’t seem right.
    My understanding of Lacan is limited–mostly coming from an introductory guide by Lionel Bailly. Curiously, he writes, it is by the discourse of the hysteric (the student who wants to have the status of the one who knows, rather than knowledge itself) that leads to true learning, by questioning the other represented by the master sigs.
    Is the questioning in hysterical discourse the beginning of a way out of this morass?

  19. Mal Avatar

    Tom, we need to find better things for these customers to do, and point them towards them. What about getting them to flaneur? A nice random walk across New York city, taking in parks, and cafés, should calm their addled hyper-liberal brains. They might also see, and meet, some real people and get away from their hyper-liberal fantasy world for a few hours. I had a very good flaneur today, involving nice sojourn in a run-down café, including good conversation with the owner. Also a chat with librarians and a caretaker about a wonky machine that wouldn’t give me coffee. All little things, but real interactions with real people, away from the hyper-liberal mainstream, and not costing anything beyond minimal payments for sustenance, which I needed anyway. Have you encountered Will Self on the other side of the pond? Here he is on being a flaneur:

    P.S. sorry about over-use of the term hyper-liberal, just read a great article in the TLS by John Gray:

    Yey! Got my two favourite British intellectuals into the same post.

  20. wtpepper Avatar

    I’m not sure what the master signifier is here, really. It seems a bit elusive. Surely, the “real techniques, ancient wisdom,” etc, is in the role of the agent/knowledge. But what is the secret truth that we don’t quite want to say, which this whole practice is working to keep in place? It seems like some kind of calvinist belief that affluence is a sign you are one of the chosen–at least, that’s all I can come up with at this point. Maybe going to some of the classes would make it clearer. It is hard to break someone out of a delusion, though, unless you know exactly what master signifier their delusion is protecting.

    I would say the the discourse of the hysteric is helpful in exposing these master signifiers. But for Lacan, as I understand him, the only way out of the painful cycle of desire is the discourse of the analyst. The hysteric will never be free of the desire to know, and never grasp that there is no actual truth in the signifieds he is interrogating.

    I love that Gray essay, thanks. I’ve had this conversation often in recent years, with college faculty who think it is fine to question whether the holocaust really occurred, but not acceptable to question whether capitalism might cause harm to people, or whether Stalinism was really communism. University faculty member have mostly become these “hyper-liberals,” and are willing to censor disturbing truths while constantly making the confused claim that concrete empirical facts are really just matters of opinion. It has become necessary to look outside the universities to find real thought these days! (And I think the article you linked by Dr. Dalrymple–sounds like a character in a Dickens novel–exactly explains why this is true).

  21. Mal Avatar

    Tom, have you read “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals” by Gray? He has some things to say about Buddhism and meditation, in passing, in that book: “The Buddhist ideal of awakening implies we can sever our links with our evolutionary past. We can raise ourselves from the sleep in which other animals pass their lives. Our illusions dissolved, we need no longer suffer. This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind. But the idea we can rid ourselves of animal illusion is the greatest illusion of all. Meditation … cannot uncover them.” p.79

  22. wtpepper Avatar

    Mal, no, I haven’t read this book. But I have seen this argument made half a dozen times by other people.

    We’re getting off topic here, but this is the most heinously evil piece of sophistry around today. The idea that any belief that we can reduce human suffering by becoming aware of our misconceptions and our “instincts” is exactly the same as the Christian belief that if we suffer in this life we will be rewarded with eternal bliss…well, that’s just so obviously wrong only someone really desperate to avoid the effort of thought and social action could accept it. Clearly, we are capable of rising above our animal nature—it is NOT an illusion that we can cure diseases, medicate pain, heat our houses all winter, and store up enough food to not have to worry about starvation. We really can do these things. This argument, so common today, is just another type of neoliberal ideology: we just are suffering animals, and nothing we can do can change the way the world is (it isn’t capitalism, it’s in our genes). Sorry to get exercised over this…but I am convinced that this belief, that we are just the same as all other animals, is used to block rational thought and discourage real action to reduce suffering, and is the most pernicious ideology at work today. Maybe this is a topic for another post, though.

    But really, the idea that we can use thought to suffer less is in no way the same as the Christian fantasy of escaping into heaven as a reward for our suffering. That’s just bullshit.

  23. Mal Avatar

    Glenn said: “… the problem with an organization like MNDFL and its meditation practices is not that it is some kind of bogus capitalist con … it does work … presenting us with a remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics…” So a neoliberal capitalist subject feels good by strengthening resilience, “so that it may practice perpetual adaptability in the face of inescapable vulnerability. Being a thoroughly degraded subject, possessing minimal autonomy and agency, the MNDFL subject can act in one limit sphere only: the inner life. “Feeling good” is thus similarly degraded and diminished. And so on…”

    So how does MNDFL convince us that their techniques will work, rather than, say, having a good nap or a nice walk? The home page makes a subtle use of a few key words (“meditation”, “traditions”) that well read New Yorkers are likely to respond to, leaving them thinking unconsciously, “Ah yes, Buddhist meditation is a tradition of salvation that’s thousands of years old”. So they, sublimally, feel they are signing onto a course of salvation, without any heavy sell that might induce them to ask more questions.

    Pointing out that they are actually signing into something cobbled together by amateur Western Buddhists, from self help material, might shock them from thinking they are going to be “saved”, and get them into trying other, better, activities, with more realistic, if more modest aims. Back to the flâneur again, that’s an activity that gets you to explore your outer environment and encounter other people, it’s not just “all in your head”. You could ask them if that isn’t more likely to make them feel better than the techniques MNDFL are pushing. Then they might move to taking part in street protests, or walk into a political space that’s actually doing something to improve the world.

    “Borges’s animals and beggars are those who still seek the disciplines of physical geography – we understand that to walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it. The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.” – Will Self

    Work. Consume. Die:

  24. James R. Martin Avatar


    “We all know it [mindfulness meditation] doesn’t work at all for anyone who isn’t getting a paycheck out of it.”

    Wow, that’s certainly a very cynical statement!

    What does “work” here mean? Is there one unique benefit which all x-buddhists and/or mindfulness practitioners agree is THE benefit which indicates that this practice “works”?

    “So, I would ask them, why did you stop? Would you start again? And they couldn’t answer the first question, but were adamant that no, they would never do mindfulness again. It seemed to evoke the kind of dread that one only hears about trips to the dentist or algebra homework.”

    Lots of folks do indeed give up the practice after a while. There are myriad reasons for this giving up, not any one reason. But one of the main reasons has exactly to do — I think — with the narcissism which Glenn was pointing out in “Boutique Buddhism” and its associated “Boutique Mindfulness”. The Boutique version of these is selling a product which is generally labelled “Always tastes good and induces pleasure”. But the actual practice–done well–, in fact, often seems to do quite the opposite. I say “seems,” because the practice brings about a heightened awareness of what one is actually feeling / sensing (etc.) which was previously blocked, masked, hidden, concealed, suppressed, repressed…. That is, it allows one to feel what is actually there and present — which is often discomfort and pain. That’s not what the “practitioner” bargained for in the Boutique, advertised version. And when “sitting with” (or laying down with, or standing with…, or moving with) doesn’t immediately result in a “breakthrough” (a relief from pain or suffering) the practitioner decides that he or the practice, or both, are no good. Or useless.

    Those who stay with the practice despite the fact that they are feeling uncomfortable in it much or all of the time, however, almost always report important benefits. But these may not be the benefits the narcissist wants. Or thinks s/he wants.

    I think it is a disservice to the critical purpose of this blog to throw out the meditation and mindfulness baby with the ample and turbid bath water. I celebrate the critical project, but it seems to me foolish to think there is no value whatsoever in practicing mindfulness meditation.

    I no longer consider myself to be a Buddhist. But mindfulness meditation is an important part of my life which I know has benefited me in numerous ways. I’ll keep the baby.

  25. wtpepper Avatar

    I’ve explained in a number of essays on this blog what is wrong with mindfulness—admittedly, my explanations are a bit more rigorous than cliched metaphors about babies and bath water, but I don’t think they’re too very hard to read. I won’t try to explain it yet again. Read around on the blog a bit, and maybe you’ll get the idea.

  26. James R. Martin Avatar

    wtpepper –

    Could you please point out which particular essays of yours provide this rigorous explanation about “what is wrong with mindfulness”? I’ve been reading around the blog, as you suggested, and have not yet found any of your posts which supposedly explain why mindfulness meditation is either useless or worse.

  27. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi James. Do you mean “mindfulness” or “Mindfulness”? The former is a simple mental concentration exercise. Like any exercise, it produces results, of course. Those cognitive-emotional results are real, if trivial. “Being mindful” in the sense that, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn proposes (“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” etc.), is basic to a life of integrity and presence. My grandmother taught me about it long before JKZ commodified it. (Because my grandmother was much more intelligent them JKZ, she left out the “and nonjudgmentally” part, recognizing the impossibility and undesirability of that trait.) That “mindfulness” has become an industry onto itself only shows the sadness, desperation, and immaturity of the general public. Upper case Mindfulness, is altogether different. It is a baroque ideological structure. As such, it has nothing to do with the simple cognitive exercise of mindfulness. It has everything to do with becoming a certain kind of subject. You should find plenty of material on this topic around the blog. Look in the comments, too.

  28. James R. Martin Avatar

    Hi Glenn.

    “Do you mean “mindfulness” or “Mindfulness”?

    I meant mindfulness, with the lower case m.

    “The former is a simple mental concentration exercise.”

    It has often been said that it is “simple” but yet not “easy” — but whether it is simple in any sense is not entirely clear to me. After all, there appear to be at least hundreds of different approaches and instructions — and what may be called “settings” (in the sense of setting down the meaning or understanding of the practice, which need not be in a Buddhist setting or context). By some instructions and settings, the practice can in fact be easy, at least sometimes!

    “Like any exercise, it produces results, of course. Those cognitive-emotional results are real, if trivial.”

    I’m guessing by trivial you mean to say “of little value or importance”. And I certainly would agree that the value of the practice would be trivial in or by numerous (and popular) instructions, approaches and settings. Yet, in other approaches and settings the practice can really light up, so to speak. It can become very alive and transformative, healing…. I happen to agree with you that what I have called “setting” can go really badly wrong, awry. And the consequences are NOT GOOD, such as when the “setting” requires some kind of quietistic retreat from social engagement, or even from one’s own actual personal situation.

    Most mindfulness meditation methods and procedures, glued to their “settings,” do not seem to have any real benefit. In my view, this is mostly because the tend to support and encourage the general disembodiment (a kind of dissociation, really) which undergirds the various social pathologies you write about. One cannot be both embodied, in a true sense, and captured by the ideologies you criticise. Nor can one be truly embodied and caught up in the various trances of authoritarianism and authority which are the setting of what you call x-buddhism.

    There is nothing in the least trivial in how I approach or experience my meditation practice. It is a very rich practice for me, as is my own attempt to live with critical consciousness and social engagement.

  29. James R. Martin Avatar

    PS –

    “My grandmother taught me about it long before JKZ commodified it. (Because my grandmother was much more intelligent them JKZ, she left out the “and nonjudgmentally” part, recognizing the impossibility and undesirability of that trait.)”

    I like that. I really do. The more I engage with “mindfulness meditation,” the less inclined I am to pursue nonjudgement as part of the “instructions”. Allowing what is there to be there is more the aim, and so I’m fine to let judgement be part of the mix. Nor am I interested in embodying a detached “witness” perspective on my experience in meditation. What’s been happening with me is that I’ve been called ever further into simply being intimate with my experience as it is in an attentive, friendly, kind, sensitive, curious, open sort of way — with the focus (foreground) being mostly on bodily sensation and presence. It is THIS practice which I find entirely non-trivial. And deeply engaging. Maybe that’s not what the Buddha taught us to do, but I could care less whether he did. I know far too much about the incredible diversity of methods, techniques, etc., to concern myself with some fantasy of “the original and true”.

  30. wtpepper Avatar

    My most recent attempt is called “Mindfulness Yet Again.” Also, check out Per Drougge’s essay “Notes on a Coming Backlash”.

  31. James R. Martin Avatar

    Tom, I have read “Mindfulness Yet Again” and have posted a response (a mini-essay, really) in that thread.

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