This post is a call to arms. I hope to incite a collective that produces thinking, concepts, dialogue, texts, and practices toward an ideologically-disruptive usage of buddhist materials. The ideology that is being disrupted is, of course, that of our current capitalist-corporate-consumerist World.
What prompts this post is my perusal of the Mindful Living Week hosted by the Awake Network and Shambhala Mountain Center (links below). I don’t know what to say about it. I was just staring at the pictures of all the smiling facilitators (“World-Renowned Psychologists, Mindfulness Teachers, and Thought Leaders”),
reading through the descriptions of the course (“Inner World: Calm, Clarity, Motivation; Outer World: Strength, Harmony, Delight”), viewing the teaching of one Dr. Rick Hanson (“Day 1 Challenge: Pay Attention. Begin the day by setting the intention to pay attention”), observing the childlike images of those puffy white flowers you blow in the spring, people holding hands, and lovely leaves floating on a pond.
And I wondered:
Buddhism in America has always been attended by the affirmation, commerce, innocence, and practicality that is abundantly present on the Mindful Living Week site. That’s because it is Buddhism in America. And in America, affirmation masks a morbid sense of ever-impending disaster; commerce is the name for the soul-crushing commercialization of every aspect of our lives; innocence belies an insipid puerility; and practicality is really just a word for the cynical belief that, as neoliberal monarchs Thatcher and Reagan used to say, “there is no alternative,” this World is all we can hope for. So, yes, why not do as Dr. Rick Hanson teaches: “Tune into the body and be mindful of feeling alright, right now”?
To be blunt, perusing the Mindful Living Week site I felt sick to my stomach, beyond what I have ever felt before. That feeling only deepened when I watched the welcoming video and videos of teachers. Again, I don’t really know how to express it. The fatuousness has reached a new level. The phony soft dharma-talk/NPR voices. The worn-out language. The tiredness of it all. And it is tinged with a new ingredient: cynicism. It feels as if the organizers and teachers don’t even believe in the product they are selling. I felt that I was surreptitiously peaking at a grotesque performance, a farcical début du siècle deformation of self-care. Call it the Ozification of American Buddhism–the monstrous offspring of a Deleuzian ass-fuck between the Buddha, the sneaky sniveling Wizard of Oz, medical snake oil salesman Dr. Mehmet Oz, and schlocky snakehead-eating post-Black Sabbath Ozzy.
I was overcome with a sense that Buddhism in America has reached the proverbial tipping point. Programs like this are now the norm. This is what Buddhism has become in America, friends. You should not be surprised. It’s what people were made to expect, have come to expect, and now demand; and so the form is perpetually reproduced. I doubt it can ever be reversed. I doubt that Buddhist ideas can ever again be taken seriously by serious people in the West as consequential elements of thought and practice.
The reason, though, lies not in the ideas themselves. As Tom Pepper reminds us from time to time, much in Buddhist thought is so valuable because it “depends on ways of thinking that are alien to us, because they are not part of a capitalist World.” In Alain Badiou’s terms, certain Buddhist concepts enable us to think contrary to the “state of the situation.” The tacit assumption driving programs like the Mindful Living Week is that the “state of the situation” is enormously fucked up. On that we agree. We do not agree, however, that their assortment of “thought leaders” can offer “inspired guidance” concerning “what matters most in your life.” That is because the state of the situation is only reinforced, not diminished, by the likes of “The Feel Better Effect.” The “state of the situation” is irrevocably appended to “The State” per se. Is it possible that those Mindful “thought leaders” are leading their followers ever deeper into the very formation that makes them so sick to begin with?
I often get asked why we should be concerned with such an insignificant sliver of society such as the Mindfulness Industry. One response is that as innocuous as it may appear, it is an appendage of a much larger, much more insidious apparatus. Just consider the extent to which the mainstream has embraced the “happiness/mindfulness” culture. This embrace is evident in its presence in major institutions, such as corporations, universities, and even the military. As William Davies shows in The Happiness Industry, the enthronement of “wellness” at the heart of Western social-cultural-economic matrix is evocatively exemplified by the fact that “Davos people”—attendees of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, including national presidents, government ministers, heads of national banks, billionaires, corporate CEOs, economists, currency regulators from bureaucracies like the Fed, captains of industry from chemicals and big oil to media and entertainment, and even rich pop stars—have thoroughly embraced it. As Davies reports, at a recent Davos gathering “the forum was awash with talk of ‘mindfulness.’” Happiness, wellness, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, it turns out, is healthy for business’s bottom line. One participant reported, “I learned relaxed focus, to be able to disconnect from the overall noise in a high-speed environment and get things done without feeling too stressed about it.” It is perhaps not surprising that the corporate world now hires for its newest executive position, CHO: Chief Happiness Officer.
It should also not be surprising that an increasing number of major universities in the West—sixty-six, according to one study—are following suit. Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Emory, Rice, Duke, Virginia, Cambridge, Oxford, Aarhus in Denmark, Monash in Australia, the University of Amsterdam, to name but the most prominent ones, now offer some variety of “mindfulness” or “contemplative studies” program or research platform. The aim of these programs is captured in a statement by the director of Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative: “We’re trying to produce a whole new generation of contemplative humanists, scientists and artists…We’re trying to build a whole new academic field from the ground-up.” Given that goal, and its origination in an institution of higher education and research, what might be surprising is that these programs function as custodians, apologists or, in several cases, proselytizers of all things “mindful” and “contemplative.” Yet, again, this, too, should really not be all that surprising. For, technologies of self-care, though arguably designed to enable the practitioner a means of resistance to dominant and unhealthy norms, currently function as ideological supplements to these norms. Here, it is important to state the matter in more active terms; for, doing so reminds us that we are dealing with real agents in the real world, agents capable of acting on, of illuminating and changing, subjugating structures: the current leaders of Buddhist (or whatever) thought and practice are aligning self-care with the interests of the very social formation that they, ostensibly, desire to counter. It is not unreasonable to suspect a kind of collusion at work, by turns repressed and overt, between the cognitive research labs at Harvard University, the contemplative studies program at Brown, the smoky back rooms at Davos, the conference tables of our capital-investing class, and your local mindfulness group. Apparently, what’s good for Google is good for the the rest of us. And what presently “preoccupies our global elites is: Happiness…The future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness, and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place.”
Yeah. We’re in deep shit.
As I said at the outset, my purpose in writing this post is to incite action in another direction altogether. I will offer as my own opening salvo this paragraph from the intro of my new book, tentatively titled Calculus of the Buddha: Toward a Responsible Culture of Self-Care:
This book is grounded in several interrelated assumptions. The title of the project is intended to signal my conviction that Buddhism offers us valuable conceptual resources for “calculating”—for plotting and measuring—a viable means to what it terms human “awakening,” or the achievement of optimal awareness of self, others, society, environment, etc. Buddhist concepts like no-self, contingency, presence, vanishing, and many others, offer invigorating, often profoundly innovative and radical, vectors of thought. Decades of studying these concepts, however, has convinced me that they are reflexively placed in the service of an unquestioned humanism—with, that is, a celebratory enthronement of the ostensibly rational human at the center of a meaningful universe. Humanism is integral to our current way of thinking about such means. I believe that this claim applies equally to scholarship on Buddhism as to avowedly apologetic literature. This alliance, sustained from the earliest days of Buddhist studies, has had decisive consequences for the Western reception of Buddhism. The overall effect has been to obfuscate precisely what, I argue, is most compelling about the Buddhist material; namely, the prospect of conceiving it as the “calculus” mentioned above. Current usage of the material in contemporary Western society, whether in the hands of scholars or practitioners, does not merely contravene the anti-humanist awareness-enhancing spirit of this calculus, it subverts its trajectory toward an ideological collusion with the current status quo. Given these assumptions, the argument driving the project is that a reconfiguration is in order. But a responsible means of awareness-enhancing, whether conceived as religious practice, contemplative epoché, scholarly study, or practical “self-care,” can no longer seek justification on the same plane on which it has been diminished. For the establishment of a new plane of Buddhist thought and practice, of a position that is tenable to a twenty-first century thinker, something like a buddhofiction is required.