Nirvana and Depression

NOTE: “Nirvana and Depression” is part of a series of blog posts, which are no longer online but are collected in the ebook The Faithful Buddhist (link below). Some passages that are perhaps a bit obscure here are less so in the complete, original context.

By Tom Pepper

Robert Sharf’s talk “Mindfulness or Mindlessness” (link below) begins with brief mention of the relationship between enlightenment and depression.  If depression involves the “loss of an important source of positive value,” and the goal of Buddhist practice is exactly to “let go” of all of our attachments and illusions—effectively, those things that give our lives a sense of “meaningfulness” and allow for enjoyment—then wouldn’t the goal of Buddhist practice be to become incurably depressed?

Sharf is quoting from an essay by Gananath Obeyesekere, in which Obeyesekere goes on to suggest that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is, in fact, first realizing that “hopelessness lies in the nature of the world” and then “understanding and overcoming that hopelessness” (134, emphasis added).  This overcoming is possible, he says, because when Buddhist practice is undertaken in a Buddhist culture the “loss” that it produces is, in Obeyesekere’s phrase, “anchored to an ideology”(135).  That is, the abandonment of the attachments and illusions that comfort us takes place in a particular social practice, so the effect is “intrinsically locked into larger cultural and philosophical issues of existence and problems of meaning”(135).  I will return to Obeyesekere’s essay later, because I think he offers some very important insights into the cultural causes of depression in the West, and his essay can help us to think more clearly about how to actually solve this pandemic problem.

First, however, I want to briefly address the problem of what exactly depression is, from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective.  We are all familiar enough with the list of symptoms found in the DSM-V, but psychology has little to offer us in the way of explaining depression, generally remaining at the level of description.  I would suggest that we can make some progress only once we recognize depression as a socially constructed way of interacting with the world—in Buddhist terms, as a conventionally real subjective experience, the causes and conditions of which we can determine in thought.

The attempt to give a Lacanian explanation of depression might seem strange to those familiar with Lacan’s work.  Lacan almost never mentions depression, and, as one Lacanian analyst has put it “the psychoanalytic clinic refutes any idea of an entity that could be named ‘depression’”(Skriabine).  Skriabine’s point isn’t that we should forget about depression, but that we must avoid the tendency to subsume all discontent with the world as it is under the “non-differentiating cloak of depression” and then respond with the standard pharmacological treatment.  Instead, “the psychoanalytic clinic [must] account for each of the very different forms of depression by elaborating how each subject is inscribed, with his suffering, in an articulable structure.”  The avoidance of a general diagnosis of “depression” is an attempt to address each individual case as unique, and examine what exactly is leading to the specific set of symptoms.  This does not, of course, obviate the need to begin with some idea of what that “articulable structure” is likely to be, and how the psychic structure may fail in ways that look more or less like “depression.”

The classic psychoanalytic text on depression is, of course, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia.”  For Freud, both mourning and melancholia are a result of the loss of a loved object, an object to which libidinal energy has been cathected.  The difference is that in mourning there is a gradual diminishing of this libidinal attachment, and the energy is, over time, through ordinary culturally established grieving practices, shifted onto some other object or objects.  This cannot, Freud says, happen instantly, because the attachment is not at the conscious level, but exists in “the unconscious thing-presentation of the object” which is “made up of innumerable single impressions (or unconscious traces of them)”(256).  The attachment, then, is like a habit, and can only gradually be replaced with a new set of “innumerable single impressions” so that a new habit forms capable of giving some satisfactory outlet to libidinal energies.

In melancholia, on the other hand, there is some difficulty in abandoning the cathexis, because in “the region of memory traces of things (as contrasted with word-cathexes)”(256-7), there remains some resistance to abandoning the attachment, something which seeks to “maintain this position of the libido.”  This may be in part because in mourning the object lost is an actual object (a real person who has died), while in melancholia the object that is lost can be an “ideal object,” a concept or belief or expectation.  I will suggest that one way to understand this is that the loss of an important belief about the world, one central to the person’s actions (job, lifestyle, daily routine), can lead to melancholia precisely because these actions continue, clinging to the “lost” belief at the unconscious level of the “thing presentation” (what Freud called  Dingvorstellung).  What we forget, in dealing with depression, is that it is exactly not a response of some essential true self or soul to the unbearable sadness of being, but that it exists in our failure to respond to the gap between our practices and our beliefs—in Lacanian terms, the gap (or contradiction) between the imaginary and the symbolic.

To return to Obeyesekere, then, his suggestion that “affects exist in Western society in a relatively free-floating manner” is exactly what prevents us from dealing with depression.  As Obeyesekere suggests, “the affects of depression are not given cultural meaning and significance…in Western society…In this situation, affects exist more or less in a free-floating manner, awaiting a different symbolic formulation: their conceptualization as a ‘disease’: ‘depression’”(148).  While Freudian theory would have us arrive at an understanding, in each case, of the practices and beliefs at work, usually unconsciously, in producing depression, Western psychology has simply labelled this symptom a “disease” and refused any explanation that might have to do with anything outside  the individual—social practices or symbolic systems, for instance.  Fredric Jameson, in a recent book on realist fiction, suggests that the nineteenth century witnessed a transformation of emotion into affect; while the former has meaning in the context  of a social situation, the latter must “remain free-floating and independent of [explanatory]  factors (which only exist for other people), and this is obviously a function of its temporality as an eternal present, as an element which is somehow self-sufficient, feeding on itself, perpetuating its own existence”(36).  Affect, then, becomes the only activity of the eternal, transcendent self—any “meaning” is suspect, part of a somehow insincere and fallen world: “if it means something, it can’t be real; if it is real, it can’t be absorbed by purely mental or conceptual categories” (37).  The ideological function of this “free floating affect,” to put it perhaps too bluntly, is to ensure that the modern subject cannot conceive of (and certainly won’t desire) any action that would change the state of her World and perhaps relieve her more unpleasant affects.  After all, if our affects are the only activity of our “true self,” why would we want to do anything but “feel” them?

The result, it seems, is a modern subject that is both highly addictable and often addicted.  Freud suggests that melancholia would include a “regression from the object-cathexis to the still narcissistic oral phase of libido”(250); Heinz Kohut in Analysis of the Self, his well-known book on treatment of narcissistic personality disorders, suggests that a failure of proper object cathexes is the cause of addiction:

[V]ery early traumatic disturbances in the relationship to the archaic idealized self-object and, especially, traumatic disappointments in it may broadly interfere with the development of the basic capacity of the psyche to maintain, on its own, the narcissistic equilibrium of the personality…in personalities who become addicts.  The trauma they suffer is most frequently the severe disappointment in a mother who, because of her defective empathy with the child’s needs…did not appropriately fulfill the functions (as a stimulus barrier; as an optimal provider of needed stimuli; as a supplier of tension-relieving gratification, etc.) which the mature psychic apparatus should later be able to perform (or initiate) predominantly on its own.  Traumatic disappointments…deprive the child of the gradual internalization of early experiences of being optimally soothed…Such individuals remain thus fixated on aspects of archaic objects and they find them, for example, in the form of drugs. (46)

Kohut, of course, assumes that the only “normal” or even adequate forms of early cathexes are the bodily, pre-verbal attachment to the mother combined with the ideational attachments in language which result from the idealization of the father.  Any alternative objects are “compensatory” and a sign of pathology—in fact, one could say that on Kohut’s definition narcissism is simply a label for anyone who holds any ideals not originating in his nuclear family (an interest, say, in politics if one’s father had not been a politician would be “narcissistic” because it is the identification with an ideal produced and maintained in one’s own mind or “psyche,” and not produced by the paternal other).  Setting aside such culture-bound biases, however, and for now ignoring Kohut’s assumption of the existence of a “rudimentary archaic self” that is the “center of the psychological universe” and predates any interaction with even the mother (see The Restoration of the Self, Chapter 1), can we make some use of Kohut’s observations about the structural causes of addiction?

Is it possible to translate Kohut’s explanation into Lacanian concepts?  What if we consider the addictive use of drugs (or alcohol or food, etc.) as a response to the failure of the imaginary register?  The imaginary is a kind of bodily experience of and interaction with the world, which would include Freud’s Dingvorstellung. The sensory and habitual expenditure of energy in enjoyable ways, however, depends on the interaction of the imaginary with the symbolic, which includes the kinds of concepts that structure our understanding of the world.  Kohut assumes the necessity of an ideal mother who gradually disappoints the child, allowing her to develop a “psychic structure” which centers on an elusive attempt to recover infantile imaginary plenitude, and works to compensate for that loss with moments of intense affect and the conviction that the world just must be accepted as it is.  It is possible, however, to understand the failure of the imaginary as a failure of the culturally produced possibilities for meaningful activity in the world.   In Lacanian terms, melancholia and addiction would result from the failure of the symbolic system combined with the absence of any useful and meaningful bodily activity.  If we are completely interpellated into the dominant postmodern ideology, if we assume that thought is a terrible thing, that reality can’t be known in language and concepts, and that all we can know as “real” are our free-floating and meaningless affects, wouldn’t the response of depression and addiction make some sense?

To solve this difficulty, to finally begin to address these enormous problems, we would have to begin by forming new kinds of symbolic systems.  Our dominant symbolic systems in capitalism are inherently  dependent on deception, ignorance and denial—and assume that the goal of a thought is to somehow “reflect” or map the mind-independent world; such a correspondence-theory of thought (or language) simply requires that our symbolic register be structured around a repressed aporia–that we remain to some extent deluded in order for the system to “work.”  Instead, we can see the symbolic order as a socially produced tool with which we can collectively decide on projects to commit to.  Then we would need to commit to these projects in daily activities, in the very rituals of daily life, and stop engaging in social practices of the symbolic system that we no longer accept.  To continue to participate in a practice that is structured to reproduce the symbolic system we have consciously abandoned is to fall into the dilemma Freud explains for us as the problem of melancholia: we are unconsciously clinging, in our actions, to a symbolic object that we no longer consciously accept.  When the activity of our imaginary register fails, and we have no symbolic capacity to guide us in the production of new social practices, or no collective that can (to use somewhat Hegelian language) give recognition to the social practices of our collective project, we fall into despair or addiction, including addiction to antidepressants, as a last-ditch attempt to stave off total subjective disintegration. The common “treatment,” of course—as Lacan suggests in “The Direction of Treatment and the Principles of Its Power”—is to use an unexamined identification with the therapist to attempt to reinterpellate the individual into the deluded beliefs of hegemonic ideology; that this almost always fails with depressives and addicts is perhaps testament to the capacity of thought to exceed the attempts at mystification and obfuscation so essential to capitalist ideology.

The difficulty with working toward Buddhist enlightenment is that it would require that we set out to fully dismantle our symbolic order, even begin to put a new one in its place.  For what else is enlightenment but the rejection of the reifications and delusions required by the dominant symbolic systems of capitalist social formations?  As Nagarjuna describes it, the pursuit of Nirvana would sound like a recipe for self-induced melancholia.  Here are two translations of what is probably Nagarjuna’s most explicit statement concerning the attainment of nirvana, from the Yuktisastika, verses 10-12:

When one discerns with precise intuition
What occurs conditioned by misknowledge,
One does not experience anything,
Whether created or ceased.

That is immediate nirvana,
And that very thing is “attaining the goal.”
If, after that insight into the truth,
One discovers any particular here,

Imagining any sort of creation,
In anything, however subtle,
Such an unwise individual
Does not see the meaning of “conditioned arisal.”

                        Joseph Lozio’s translation, in Nagarjuna’s Reason Sixty (Yuktisastikā)

When one sees with correct knowledge that which arises conditioned by ignorance, no origination or destruction whatsoever is perceived.

This is nirvana in this very life—one’s task is accomplished.  But if a distinction is made here, just before knowledge of the Dharma—

On who imagines that even the most subtle thing arises: Such an ignorant man does not see what it means to be dependently born!

                        Christian Lindtner’s translation, in Master of Wisdom

Although the difficulties in translating philosophical terms makes these passages slightly obscure, I think it is clear enough that they are best summed up in the terms Jay Garfield uses in his commentary on the Mulamadhyamakakarika: “When all reification ceases, that world and one’s mode of living in it, becomes nirvana….nirvana is simply samsara seen without reification, without attachment, without delusion”(329-331).  The concern, for Nagarjuna, is that if even one thing is held as being beyond causes and conditions, as being “created” or arisen on its own, not dependently, then we fall immediately back into delusion and cannot inhabit nirvana.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the “objects” which structure our interaction with the world have both a symbolic and an imaginary component—they are both ideational  and bodily, habitual attachments.  When we lose all of our objects, and there is no practice in which to transition our attachment, our libidinal cathexes, to new objects, this, for Freud, is the very definition of melancholia.  If the goal of Buddhist practice is both to abandon all reification and attachment, and then to avoid the tendency for new attachments and reifications to slip subtly back in, wouldn’t we be left in a state of melancholia?  Is nirvana, then, nothing but permanent and total depression?

To respond to this, let’s turn to another text that is usually attributed to Nagarjuna (although it exists only in a Chinese recension): The Bodhisambhara Sastra.  In this text, Nagarjuna seems to be fully aware of the dangers of seeking enlightenment, particularly the dangers of stopping at the point of abandoning all attachments, of recognizing the conventional nature of all concepts.  The difficulty is clear: once we realize that all of our concepts are socially produced in our symbolic systems, they lose their appeal as psychological objects, and we lose any motivation to act in the world.  Nagarjuna warns us, therefore, that to “base [one’s] actions on sunyata by apprehending sunyata…this error amounts to the fault of belief in a personal substance”(Verse 151; Lindtner, p. 148).  To stop at emptiness is just as serious an error as to be in the delusion that one has a transcendent self of any kind—it is a form of clinging that leads to what is sometimes referred to as “bodhisattva death.” Earlier in the Bodhisambara, Nagarjuna warns us that “Until one develops the great compassion and the patiences…The bodhisattva is still subject to a form of ‘dying’”( Verse 24; Dharmamitra, p. 29).  It is essential, according to this text, to continuously make effort to produce the right kinds of thoughts and habits without believing them to be in any way “natural” or unconstructed—that is, we must learn to produce our ideology without reification.  The Buddhist seeking enlightenment rejects all the things which ordinarily give us a sense of importance, self-worth and enjoyment (“Profit, reputation, honors, and pleasure are four things one should not be attached to”(Verse 20; Lindtner, p. 127).  Instead, we need to work to “benefit living beings without tiring and without carelessness…to benefit others is to benefit oneself!” (Verse 18; Lindtner, p. 127).  Further, we must make constant intellectual effort, examining our “discursive thought” and “abandoning the unwholesome and increasing the wholesome” thoughts (Verse 85; Lindtner, p. 138).  Thinking and constant effort is the path of the bodhisattva, according to Nagarjuna.  A far cry from the passive, thought-free acceptance promoted by most Western Buddhism today.

The difficulty with working toward Buddhist enlightenment in our culture is that we are attempting to replace a symbolic system without making any alteration in our real material interactions in the world.  We want to become enlightened in order to go on acting in thoroughly unenlightened ways–reproducing the core delusions of capitalist ideology, for instance, by continuing to participate in the illusion of exchange value, and doing so ever more efficiently, effectively, and “mindfully.”  We believe we can do this because we understand thought as a “reflection” of the world, rather than as an action in the world.  This error is probably essential to the mistaken belief that we reinvest our engagement of the world with libidinal energy through “mindfulness” practice solely at the level of the imaginary, with no thought or meaning at the symbolic level; what “mindfulness” is doing, however, is more likely helping the practitioner ward off the crises at the level of the symbolic register, by refusing to think about it.  This may work for a time, provided the contradictions inherent in capitalist social formations can be successfully excluded from the individual’s life. For those who aren’t willing to remain deluded, however, it will inevitably lead to frustration and depression  What we must seek to do, instead, is to consciously choose the actual concrete practices we would like to make meaningful and enjoyable in our daily lives; we must use our symbolic capacity to produce better objects, in the psychoanalytic sense, to which we can develop cathexes–in short, we need to consciously choose our ideology.

For most of us in the West, this hardly seems possible.  For Kohut, for instance, such intentionally cultivated objects are at best a pale substitute for those which occur “naturally” in the bourgeois nuclear family and which remain unexamined—they are “compensatory,” and adequate only in the case of narcissists whose “psychic structure” is beyond complete repair.  Even for Heidegger, as Hubert Dreyfuss makes clear, if “all were clear about our ‘presuppositions,’ our actions would lack seriousness…what is most important and meaningful in our lives is not and should not be accessible to critical reflection”(4).  We can’t possibly, it is assumed, be in ideology and know that we are—because to know it as an ideology would deprive it of all its motivating power, and sink us into melancholy.

Nagarjuna, apparently, did not agree.  As I have discussed elsewhere (Cruel Theory |Sublime Practice, 42-43), neither did Aristotle, for whom the development of character depends upon our ability to consciously produce and maintain our habits of interaction with the world.  What I’m suggesting, then, is that we attempt to follow the advice of these thinkers from Western and Eastern antiquity.  We can begin by understanding conceptually how our symbolic construal of the world is socially constructed, and abandoning reification at the level of discursive thought; however, if we then continue to engage in the practices that support these symbolic structures, we are bound to be left in a state of depression as Freud defines it, with our imaginary register struggling to hold onto cathexes our symbolic system is attempting to abandon.  Tsung-mi, the ninth-century Chinese Buddhist master Sharf also mentions briefly in his talk, suggests that the breaking through of delusion can be a sudden and abrupt event, but the development of an enlightened subjectivity is a long and arduous process (see Gregory, Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity pp. 185-188).  Tsung-mi, of course, accepts the existence of an atman which is gradually purified by practice after conceptual enlightenment.  I would suggest that on Nagarjuna’s atman-free model, practice is not a process of purification but of construction, and it must be done collectively.

To end, then, with terminology perhaps more Hegelian than Buddhist, we must understand that the mind is both social and collectively produced, and that to live in nirvana is to live as an “absolute community,” one which collectively chooses to undertake social projects and in which each individual is part of, and receives the recognition of, the community.  It does take a sangha, then, to produce an enlightened subject; to attempt enlightenment alone is to risk the Bodhisattva death of profound depression.

While it may be possible for a “virtual community” to serve as a kind of collective mind, it remains essential to attempt to produce living sanghas of Faithful Buddhists in which to practice in our daily lives.


Works Cited

Dreyfus, Hubert L.  Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Mourning and Melancholia.”  Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. xvii.  London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

Garfield, Jay, translation and commentary.  The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gregory, Peter N.  Inquiry Into the Origins of HumanityAn Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi’s Yuan jen pun with a Modern Commentary.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Jameson, Fredric.  The Antinomies of Realism.  New York: Verso, 2013.

Kohut, Heinz.  The Analysis of the Self.  Madison, CT: International Universities Press,  1987.

—-The Restoration of the Self.  Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1996.

Lindtner, Christian, translation and studies.  Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna.  Oakland: Dharma Press, 1986.

Loizzo, Joseph, translation and commentary.  Nagarjuna’s Reason Sixty, Yuktisistika, With Chandrakirti’s Commentary, Yuktisastikavrtti.  New York: American Institute for Buddhist Studies and Columbia University Press, 2007.

Nagarjuna.  Nagarjuna’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Path: The Bodhisambhara Sastra.  Ed. & Trans. by Bhikshu Dharmamitra.  Seattle: Kalavinka Press, 2008.

Obeyesekere, Gananath.  “Depression, Buddhism, and the Work of Culture in Sri Lanka,” in Kleinman, Arthur, and Byron Good. Culture And Depression: Studies In The Anthropology And Cross-Cultural Psychiatry Of Affect And Disorder. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Sharf, Robert.  “Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Buddhist Critiques of “Bare Awareness”

Skriabine, Pierre.  “Some Moral Failings Called Depressions.”

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20 responses to “Nirvana and Depression”

  1. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom. This is a very important essay. I hope people will read it and give it the consideration that it deserves. You make point after point that is, to my mind, crucial for the possibility of a serious usage of Buddhist thought and practice. For example:

    “The difficulty with working toward Buddhist enlightenment in our culture is that we are attempting to replace a symbolic system without making any alteration in our real material interactions in the world.”

    Serious consideration of this idea should help us work toward finally bringing to an end the current collective of x-buddhist practitioners who, like those of the current therapy collective, merely “attempt to reinterpellate the individual into the deluded beliefs of hegemonic ideology,” thereby perpetuating and exacerbating the very illnesses that they aim to cure. That is, if people would only recognize the necessity of opting out, here and now, of deluded and debilitating practices, of “acting in thoroughly unenlightened ways–reproducing the core delusions of capitalist ideology, for instance,” than the current formations of Western Buddhism, would once and for all irreversibly appear as empty and hollow as a magical illusion, to use the words of the Buddha.

    As important as a virtual community is for producing texts and exchanging ideas, I agree that something more is required. Incite Seminars is conceived as an actual collective of the kind of thought and practice that I think you are envisioning here. But an awful lot more has to happen.

  2. wtpepper Avatar


    Thanks for posting this. As I told you, I’d forgotten about writing it. At the time, I think I was concerned because I encountered many people who were trying to respond to addiction and depression by turning to some form of Western Buddhism, and having no success at all. They couldn’t see why the “mindfulness” so universally touted as a cure-all didn’t work for them.

    But I also wanted to consider why just intellectually understanding that, for instance, our common sense beliefs about the world are socially constructed does not seem to have great benefits—in fact, it seemed, in people I knew, to lead to greater anxiety and depression and to a retreat from such understanding back into comforting ignorance.

    I think this kind of depression, and also addiction, are common, though, far beyond those who investigate buddhist and western philosophical truths. There seems to be a widespread problem with the interpellation into symbolic systems which are radically at odds with the daily experience of living in the world—often quite opposite to what I’m discussing in this essay. That is, many people are true believers in the universality of capitalism, in the Lockean ideology of the subject, in the naturalness of exchange value, etc., but are blocked from actually participating in the supposedly “natural” captialist practices by a poor economy or just by the inherent contradictions of capitalism and its necessary class division. Given this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many people are depressed, anxious, and addicted today.

    I hope people do respond to these ideas by going beyond them—by picking up where this leaves off. The only solution to our collective misery is to create social practices we can engage in in real life, in our actual worlds. There is likely no end to what such practices could look like, provided that they don’t accept reification of any ideology—that is, that they are rigorous about admitting that their ideological beliefs are ideological beliefs, and not eternal truths. Even if that belief is just that we should avoid doing things that cause others suffering, we must keep in mind that this is an ideology, an option, and not something demanded of us by a god or the laws of nature. We can commit to a belief we know is a belief.

  3. Mal Avatar

    Is there “a failure of the culturally produced possibilities for meaningful activity in the world”? To me there there seem to be an abundance of choices. Play chess? Garden? Read novels? Hike? Lean the Piano? Listen to your CDs? Do some woodwork? If Buddhist meditation has failed then try some of these other things. If you look at research centric self help books by top psychologists, like Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness”, Buddhist meditation is presented as just one item in a host of others, any of which might, or might not, work for you. (Pursuing French philosophy isn’t explicitly presented by her as a way to get to happiness, and it doesn’t appeal to me, but if it works for you Tom, sail on… any meaningful project is likely to work… if it is something that fits you.) Anyway, I’m grateful for your posts Tom, they are always brain stretching, but I’m afraid I gave up half way through this one. Too much Freud, too much Lacan, for me, and dynamic psychotherapy has not been shown to be very useful for treating depression (Lyubomirsky p.315).

  4. wtpepper Avatar

    This is exaclty the answer most psychologists would give—and is why they have not succeeded at all in helping people with depression and anxiety. A fear of “French philosophy” (Nagarjuna is not French, by the way—nor do I mention a single French philsopher in this essay) makes them incapable of comprehending what meaningful activity might be. Or why playing chess or listening to CDs might have, in our world, lost all of its “meaning.” So, they advise taking up a hobby, or perhaps reading a book on “happiness.” They can’t grasp that happiness is just the latest floating signifier, and is not the opposite of depression. And they cannot or will not understand pscyhoanalytic theory, so they conveniently dismiss it by citing some “empirical proof” that it is ineffective. (Of course, they conveniently ignore the enormous “empirical proof” that CBT is not effective, or that antidepressants don’t work…)

    This level of lazy anti-intellectualism is just exaclty the problem I’m hoping to address. I’m not interested in people who can’t be bothered to read an entire essay, but feel justified in commenting on and criticizing it. The “I don’t understand it so it must be nonsense” strategy is common in field like psychology and education today. What do we do when the “experts” give us pathetic answers like the one Mal has offered? Where else might we turn?

    There’s no debating with such people, of course. It’s like trying to convince an astrologer that horoscopes are nonsense. The task here is to offer an alternative to those many people struggling with these issues but NOT able to “get stupid” as they say in the 12-step programs.

    That is, I only want to address those people who, as Glenn put it above, see the need to “opt out” of these deluding and oppressive discourses/practices. What might we do instead? Can Buddhist thought and practice be of any use? How?

  5. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Mal. More than halfway through your comment I was certain that you were being ironic. I was certain that you were purposively presenting the shallow, thoughtless, unintelligent position of the embarrassingly facile American x-buddhist, Mindfulness, and therapeutic communities in order to show how asinine and cynically complicit they are. I was wrong. You actually believe that the activities you mention are capable of effectively addressing the condition that Tom’s essay articulates. I do, however, think that your comment is valuable. It gives readers a glimpse of what a serious engagement with Buddhist materials is up against. I wonder if any well-interpellated x-buddhist is capable of getting more than halfway through such an essay, and has no compunction admitting it in public, indeed wears it as a badge of honor. You model the very obstacle to moving forward.

  6. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, this is the common response, but this isn’t what I want to be “up against.” That is to say, I would prefer to ignore this obstacle altogether—don’t try to persuade such people, don’t try to convert them, just let them run out of steam. This is why I’m usually so abrupt and even hostile with them—I would rather they go away and practice their properly captialist x-buddhism, until they discover for themselves that it doesn’t help, that things just get worse. And except fo those making a living off it, the drop-out rate in such x-buddhist groups is enormous. Go to a TNH mindfulness group, make not of who’s there, and come back in six months. I expect that there are substantial numbers of those already unhappy with this kind of response, looking for something else.

    What I’m interested in is the people who’ve tried all the usual approaches and found them wanting, but are still dissatisfied. With the state of the World, or their own state of mind. Those who have begun to see through the common-sense ideological answers, and are hesitant to move forward in thought because…well, it really can lead to profound depression, as Obeyesekere explains. What kind of practice can we come up with to facilitate real thought and real change?

    I’m hoping someone can help me figure out how to get people to make that effort. To move from “liking’ an essay such as this, or agreeing (more or less) with its argument, to taking some action in the world. What will prompt that Kierkegaardian leap to faith? I’m not the charismatic leader type, but I don’t know that having such a leader woudl help with this. What might?

  7. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    I agree, Tom. It’s time to get to work building the kinds of platforms that will enable the action you are talking about. As we speak, I am working on a “vision statement” for what may fit your definition of the “kind of practice…to facilitate real thought and real change.” Let me know if this is headed in the direction of what you envision. The statement is for Incite Seminars. This is my attempt to create a forum for change. The opening paras of the first draft:

    My vision is to establish an educational center that serves as a hothouse for knowledge acquisition, engaged dialogue, and civic action. The name of this center, Incite Seminars, is indicative of its basic mission: “incite,” to rouse, urge, encourage, and stimulate possibilities; and “seminar,” a plant nursery; an incubator; a gathering of a small group of people to discuss a topic intensively.

    Specifically, Incite Seminars will engage in four primary activities: (i) it will offer an ongoing program of higher education-style classes that creatively weave together stimulating ideas from philosophy, religion, literature, psychoanalysis, politics, and other humanities subjects; (ii) in affiliation with kindred groups, it will host community dialogues around topics and actions dedicated to social justice; (iii) it will be the home of a contemplative practice collective that seeks to fuse self care with material change; (iv) as a means of generating and disseminating ideas, we will operate an online journal called Incite Items: For Educational Iconoclasm.

    Here’s the site for Incite Seminars..

  8. wtpepper Avatar

    Well, yes, this is the kind of thing I’d like to be able to participate it. The inclusion of “civic action” is important—otherwise there can be no material change. And exactly what kind of action the group wants to take needs to arise from the intellectual and contemplative practices. What’s really important to me is that there be a recognition that any ideology is an option, that there is never a rational account for any ideological form, never an unquestionable ground for it. There may be such a ground for some kinds of practices (from agriculture to medicine) but not for our social formations.

    So then I’m left with the big question: how do you get people to participate? How do you get them to go from “that’s a good idea” to actually putting down the iPhone and putting in the time, live and in person? This is what I can’t figure out. I hope you’ll keep us posted on how this works, and how you get people engaged.

    I’d also be interested to hear from people engaged in such practices. Is it possible to be really engaged in producing material social change in the world and still be depressed in the sense described in the essay above? I would expect it wouldn’t be…but only real-life trials can decide this.

  9. wtpepper Avatar

    This morning’s “Daily Dharma” from Tricycle magazine actually made me think of this essay again—and of one obvious oversight in my discussion of depression.

    This essay assumes that the task of “seeing reality as it is,” to use the commons Western Buddhist phrase, involves rigorous intellectual work. That it does is obvious to any thinking person—and this is perhaps why so much of the history of Buddhist discourse involves subtle and sophisticated theories of epistemology. Without rigorous intellectual effort, we would still believe that we are at the stationary center of the universe, for instance. We would be wrong about reality in every way. The point of this essay is that when we do this work, we lose our attachment to our common-sense-informed practices in the world, and so fall into depression.

    The “Daily Dharma” today suggests, as usual in Tricycle and x-buddhism generally, that to see “reality as it is” we must abandon the intellect, which only clouds our true perception. Now, this is obviously the worst kind of error, encouraging blind delusion and reification of our ideologies, all the problems pointed out so often on this blog over the years. But the question is, would such blind attachment and ignorance, going under the name of “seeing reality as it is,” also lead to depression? I would suggest it might only for some people.

    I think Schopenhauer offers the clearest statement of what most people in the West take to be be Buddhism—a kind of extreme version of the Romantic ideology offered as an ontology. For Schopenhauer, “the intellect is a mere accident” and prevents us from escaping into the “true, indestructible nature of man,” in the eternal life force he calls Will—but which is not to be understood to be any kind of soul or God (Schopenhauer believes himself to be nondualist and atheist), although it is in fact the creative force of the world while remaining completely separate from the phenomenal world. Like Buddhists today, Schopenhauer wants to have a dualism that he insists is not one, and a soul that he simply calls by another name….

    The goal is to reject the creations of the intellect, and privilege our emotions (but in a detatched way, through art), to reify the existing set of experiences of the world so as to mistake our ideology for ontology. Then, we can become politically apathetic (Schopenhauer hates noboy so much as a political activist, especially if it is a poor laborer asking for a living wage). We can arrive at the insight that “dying is certainly to be regarded as the real aim of life,” when we will return to that great life force that is indestructible and blissful—but in no way like heaven, so not at all dualistic or religious!!

    Is this depressing? The fantasy of dying? Resignation and apathy? Indifference to worldly pursuits? Well, apparently not if, like Schopenhauer himself you are affluent and comfortable, and can spend your life eating, drinking, going to the theater, and convincing yourself you are living with aesthetic ironic detachment. On the other hand, if you don’t have such social privilege, then surely suicidal despair is what we mean by depression most of the time, right?

    While actually attempting to see “reality as it is” may lead to depression for everyone, unless one finds some (consciously chosen) social practice to give life meaning and purpose, deluding oneself that one sees “reality like it is” when one is completely and thoroughly interpellated into the dominant ideology is probably only depressing for those whom that ideology works to oppress—the majority of humanity, sure…but probably not the majority of x-buddhists.

  10. David Vitello Avatar

    Good stuff Gentlemen!
    I want to touch on two points briefly with regards to this post. Depression and the examined life and Vajrayana “conduct.” I’m still fleshing out many points because there is a lot here to think and comment on but will go for it.
    Obviously, moving out of ideologies that comfort and appease is rare. Most don’t have the interest or gumption. We will be hard fought to find converts, but I think must try and speak our ideology with skill. Deep investigation into out human predicament is terrifying and depressing at times, but also full of awe, mystery, beauty and out right holy fuck balls-ness. I haven’t experienced only the depressive and nihilistic to the point of feeling it necessary to make the broad claim that an examined life, no-self, groundlessness of ideologies, nebulosity (Chapman, 2018), leads to depression only, as a matter of fact. Its been up and down honestly. I know this wasn’t exactly what you were getting at Tom, but it kept popping up for me as I read. Its also came up often during my Ligotti read. Its like yeah, I’m just a puppet of multitudes, ugh, not having a prescribed meaning to life to hang my hat on and that all those around me agree sucks, not believing in some transcendent place that I’ll go to sucks, not agreeing on basically anything with anyone anymore (exaggeration) because its all so atomized sucks… But these recognitions have also led to awe, freedom, and creativity.
    Tom, you write “There seems to be a widespread problem with the interpellation into symbolic systems which are radically at odds with the daily experience of living in the world.” Vajrayana stresses effective action. One could stretch it and say that’s the entire point of the contemplative practices in that tradition, i.e. to get out of reactive ideologies and identification (to whatever degree is possible for a human) so we can be effective at responding to life (compassion activity traditionally). Chapman writes, “Buddhist tantra is about elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive action in the real world. That means that it values skill, creativity, and accomplishment.” I bring this up because I don’t think Vajrayana gets its version of Buddhism expressed enough or accurately and it does differ radically from Theravadan/Zen Consensus Buddhism. I wonder if Vajrayana offers us some ideas about how to put into action the things you and Glenn are bringing up, social justice and civic action. This investigation remains in the Buddhist lexicon which may be annoying.
    Lastly, this is what I’m struggling with lately: Why expect phenomenological practices to cause “right” sociopolitical action or any action? Why would realizing emptiness, no self, developing skills in concentration, visualization, surrender to experience in the micro-moment, etc. lead to greater insight about guiding humanity socially and politically. I often feel these are two different enterprises, a micro/macro error, an unwarranted expectation. Sure we are told this is the case in Buddhist dogma, but my doubt is growing. Its like saying just because you look through a microscope at a cars tire, you can then make all sorts of claims about the car, what its for, what’s the right way for it to be, etc.
    And finally, as much as the capitalist grind is brutally soul crushing, is this not the best its been for us puppets. Is Pinkers work relevant here? Its possible the next puppet master may be far more brutal with mutilating technology, oppressive algorithms, and the rise of totalitarianistic sadists.

    This was written before Toms’s last post. I had trouble getting it up;(

  11. wtpepper Avatar

    Thanks for your comments. I don’t think you’re understanding what I mean by the term “ideology,” though—and so your comments and questions are difficult for me to construe.

    Personally, I find the fact that we don’t have any prescribed meanings a source of joy; that I won’t go to any transcendent place is enormously exhilarating; and I wouldn’t say puppet of multitudes but part of a collective subject—which is a source of strength and joy (and the reason it is not really possible to be so atomized we agree with no one anymore—surely, you cannot be a puppet and in conflict with all others both at the same time).

    Surely nobody should abandon an ideology that gives their life real meaning and joy. So, no, I wouldn’t want to even try to convince them to do that. I may try to get them to grasp reality—-and if their ideology forbids this then there may be some problem—but I wouldn’t insist (or even suggest) anyone give up an ideology that has no downside at all. However, most people today are not comforted and appeased. More people than ever are suicidal, depressed, anxious, addicted, and medicated. So, I would suggest their ideologies aren’t working out so well.

    If vajrayana offers some strategies to deal with these problems, well, then say what they are! I don’t know of any such strategies myself, so I can’t speak to that. Saying that it encourages “effective action” says nothing at all. Can you say what an effective action might be? Something beyond tautologies about being skillful or elegant or whatever?

    I have trouble following your final paragraph. I can’t grasp what you mean by “phenomenological practices.” Are you referring to “realizing emptiness” as such a practice? If so, then can only say I don’t see this as such a practice at all. It is a conceptual practice, and should NOT “cause” but certainly enable bettter sociopolitical action. I have tried to explain why in my essay in Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice, as well as in my essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength” and other places. Realizing emptiness is nothing like staring intently at a car tire. It is like understanding the causes and conditions that give rise to things like cars, or people, or capitalism—which ones are inevitable and which are susceptible to huaman change.

    Finally, I’m sick to death of the claim that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. It is the worst we’ve done so far—and will probably destroy most human life in the near future, just for the pleasure of a few hundred thousand people. If it seems better to you than any alternative past or imagined, you are one of the few and the privileged. You need to learn more about how the rest of the world is living. And no, Pinkers is a fucking idiot and his work is never relevant anywhere.

    When I say that our symbolic systems are at odds with our actual experience of the world, it is important to remember that the symbolic system is NOT the ideology—that the ideology is both experience and symbolic system. THat is, what I am explaining is a contradiciton in our ideology that leads to our misery. It had nothing to do with being more contemplative, and cant’ be solved by “responding to life more effectively.” What’s needed is a change in the structure of our existence, not the “skill” to “respond with compassion instead of reactively” or any such new-age crap. What I’m talking about is fundamental to our life today, like the belief that freedom is the ultimate value, while we are all born in debt slavery to the very wealthy (e.g. the owners of our national debt) and must spend our lives begging them to let us work to pay the interest on these loans we are born indentured to. Or the fact that we believe in equality and fair competition but must communicate over iPhones, buy everything from Amazon, and in every action participate in oppresssing the majority of humanity for the handful of trillion-dollar corporations that prevent any competition and daily work to increase disparity. So we believe one thing, in our symbolic systems, and do something completely at odds with that in our every single action. This can’t be changed by changing our symbolic systems alone—because ideology is always a belief IN PRACTICE. It is not just what we think, but what we do. As I mention in the essay above, Freud already knew that when such a contradiciton occurs, we find ourselves depressed. (Many others have suggested the same thing, of course. Kierkegaard, for instance.)

  12. Mal Avatar

    OK, Tom, you stirred me to attempt to read the whole essay although I struggle to understand the psychoanalytic and critical terminology in several places. Jameson and Lacan I find really difficult, so please bear with my attempts to understand them.

    Does depression have to involve the “loss of an important source of positive value”? CBT therapists assume that depression is often caused by faulty thinking, not necessarily by losing something. In MBCT you are taught to “let go” of such faulty thoughts—wouldn’t that be a good thing? In this case mightn’t Buddhist practice lead to depression relief, even in a Western context?

    “… the loss of an important belief about the world, one central to the person’s actions (job, lifestyle, daily routine), can lead to melancholia precisely because these actions continue, clinging to the “lost” belief at the unconscious level.”

    This makes good sense, although I would add, from my own experience, that the “lost” belief can often break into consciousness. From there it is open to attack from CBT & Buddhist & other techniques.

    Is Jameson suggesting that, say, anger was dependent on a social situation in the 18th century, but not in the 19th century or today? If so, this seems ridiculous. Obviously we are angry in the context of a social situation just as much today as then. We are angry because someone jumps the queue, we don’t think, “I’m angry but I don’t know why because my anger is free floating.” So I don’t agree with your comment, “the modern subject cannot conceive of (and certainly won’t desire) any action that would change the state of her World and perhaps relieve her more unpleasant affects.” I can conceive that “having a quick word” with the queue jumper would relieve some of my feelings about the situation. (I may be missing your point completely here. If so, could you provide a concrete example to illustrate the abstract theorising?)

    “When we lose all of our objects, and there is no practice in which to transition our attachment, our libidinal cathexes, to new objects, this, for Freud, is the very definition of melancholia. If the goal of Buddhist practice is both to abandon all reification and attachment, and then to avoid the tendency for new attachments and reifications to slip subtly back in, wouldn’t we be left in a state of melancholia? Is nirvana, then, nothing but permanent and total depression?”

    Or is Freud wrong and the Buddha right?

    “Thinking and constant effort is the path of the bodhisattva, according to Nagarjuna. A far cry from the passive, thought-free acceptance promoted by most Western Buddhism today.”

    But isn’t “passive, thought-free acceptance” the path of the arahant? That is, isn’t it an entirely valid Buddhist path, even older than that proposed by Nagarjuna? The Western Buddhists I’ve encountered are all critical of excessive materialism and live simple lives, they are not enthralled by “getting and spending” like the serious materialists who keep the wheels of the capitalist system going.

  13. wtpepper Avatar

    I appreciate your comments, Mal. There’s a lot there, and I can’t respond to all of it at once. I’ll respond to a couple points to begin, though.

    First, yes, it is the case, always, that depression is caused by the loss, or at least the lack, of some object. This means object in the psychoanalytic sense, though. I’m not depressed because I lost my favorite hat. I’m depressed because I lost (or never had, if the depression is not recent) an object to which to cathect my libidinal energies. So, a belief in God, or a passion for sport, or a love of theater, or whatever. It could be as abstract as an attachment to advancing higher mathematics or to solving the puzzle of consciousness.

    I understand that CBT wants us to learn to reason better—the goal is to debate someone out of their thoughts, prove them less “rational” than they ought to be, and this should cure them. The goal of psychoanalysis would be different—to examine why they are having those thoughts, what kind of problem such thoughts are meant ot solve.

    CBT sounds convincing to use Americans, who want to think we are always in control of our minds and perfectly reasonable. But it never works. Really, look at the studies (there are tens of thousands of them, involving many millions of patients), and you will see that in every case, without exception, CBT was found NOT to eliminate depression. After forty years, those trying their hardest to prove it successful have yet to accomplish, in even one instance, a successful elimination of depression, even using their own measure of depression as the quantifiable outcome (the BDI). I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times—I haven’t read all the studies, only a few hundred. But I always ask anyone to find ONE study, even ONE, that needs the requirements of the APA for empircally validations (i.e., a controlled study with a sufficient and randomly assigned sample), which finds that CBT cures people of their depression. It does not.

    So, my interest is in figuring out what might do so…not simply repeating what the most exhaustively studied theory in all of psychology claims, against the evidence, will work.

    We just aren’t that rational. Badgering people about being more rational doesn’t help them, becaue poor logic is not the cause of depression. This is likely why the average number of sessions of CBT a client will attend is 1.1. It doesn’t take long to realize this is just paying do have someone annoy you.

    As for the point Jameson is making: he is not saying that our affects are NOT caused socially. He would say, of course, that they are. His point is that after the nineteenth century we came to think that any true affect is NOT caused by anything at all. It IS, of course, we just don’t like to believe it is. So if I love someone, it is beyond explanation why. If it can be explained, it is not a “true” affect, but just a response. Your anger, on this model, is not actually “caused” by the guy jumping the que—you just “have” anger, and it emerges in this context. If you didn’t get angry at this moment, you still “have” the anger inside you. NOw, the point is not that this is true—Jameson isn’t saying this is a correct theory—but that it is what is the dominant theory. Look at my review of Epstein’s book “Trauma of Everyday LIfe,” for instance. He believes, as do most therapists, that we have emotions we are not expressing, and we need to express them, even without any instigating cause, in order to be healed.

    As someone who dealt with alternating depression and addiction for three decades, I can tell you that this IS in fact the standard approach of the majority of therapists, and all addiction counselors. We have “anger” we are not “feeling,” and we must learn to feel it to get over our addiction, or depression, or anxiety. This “anger’ is not caused. it is just in all of us, inherently. No, I don’t think this is “true” (neither, I think, does Jameson), but it is what most of those in the mental health industry assume to be the case.

    For a Freudian, your affect is always a result of a particular situation and your particular interpretation of it. This may be, in some cases, perfectly rational—anger does not always result from poor reasoning.

    Finally, I would say that sure, mindfulness Buddhism may, temporarily at least, resolve depression. But, as I have argued in several essays on this blog, this is not because we have “let go” of thoughts. It is instead because we have formed a new object cathexis, in a new practice—the (socially produced) practice of mindfulness Buddhism. This may be an adequate outlet for libidinal energies, for some people, for some time. It is important, though, to know why it is really working, not just that it is working. Because it doesn’t work for more than a few months for most people, and they need to know where to look for a better and more lasting solution.

    I’ll try to respond to more of your comment later, if I have time.

  14. wtpepper Avatar

    Okay, just a couple more points, if anyone you have the patience to read them…
    I don’t think you understand what I mean by the “lost belief” here. I mean something that you no longer believe is true–like no longer believing that there really is a meritocracy in the US where those who have ability and work hard will succeed. Of COURSE this “lost belief” is conscious. It doesn’t need to “break into” consciousness. It is something we are fully aware of. The conflict is when we continue, in our practices, to act AS IF it were true, while we know, completely consciously, that it is not. This is where depression or other forms of distress can begin. This is NOT open to “attack” by CBT–because it is a true understanding, and what is at issue is that we must, we have no choice but to if we want to survive, participate in practices we know are oppressive, destructive and unjust…even once we have lost the capacity to falsely claim that they are just, fair and beneficial.

    As for what counts as real Buddhism, well, I’ve said too many times to count that there are limitless positions we could attribute to “The Buddha.” What I’m discussing is a particular approach to Buddhism, the one Obeyesekere refers to in his essay, which is closer to what Nagarjuna would have us do. It might lead to depression and distress. I’m not so sure that the passive thought-free acceptance version of Buddhism, which is clearly more popular in the West, would lead to the same dangers of depression. As I said in my previous comment, I expected that it would work to foster and strengthen delusion, making it easier to ignore the ways our everyday practices in the world depend on the brutal oppression of most human beings. It might also provide some comforting libidinal cathexes in the form of attachments to all the bells an smells, and to a charismatic guru, etc.

    I’m not sure I understand your question “is Freud wrong and Buddha right?” I take that you misunderstood what I said in the passage you quoted–or, rather, misunderstood my intent. I am not suggesting that the “True Buddha” wants us to avoid all attachment and reification, etc., and so would leave us all depressed. I AM suggesting that understanding Buddhism in this way would do so. I think that part of Obeyesekere’s point is that in a Buddhist culture, like Sri Lanka, the goal is NOT to prevent all attachments…rather, the goal is exactly to produce new attachments to the Buddhist practices. The difference is in consciously and intentionally producing those attachments. The problem with Western Buddhism is that we produce them, but pretend, falsely, that we are free of the ALL attachments…Western Buddhists are the most violently attached people I know (really, I’ve had death threats from a couple of them). They are just so profoundly confused and deluded that they think their attachments are freedom from attachment. I’m not sure if that clears the matter up–in the paragraph that seems to be in question, though, I am explaining a position I am NOT advocating–I’m just explaining what many people believe they are doing. I don’t take it that Obeyesekere thinks this is what Buddhists in traditionally Buddhist countries think they are doing, and for him this is the important difference.

    As for the last point, I don’t doubt you. We probably just know different Western Buddhists. All the one’s I know will also claim to revile materialism and consumerism…but they are disdainful of anyone who doesn’t drive a Mercedes, and get much more excited talking about their investments than talking about Santideva. If you know some who are different, well, I’m sure you don’t live in the suburbs of Connecticut…

    I would say that the kind of popular Western Buddhist teachers we see in Tricycle seem much more focused on sales and image and lifestyle than ideas, truth, or changing the world.

  15. Mal Avatar

    “… and what is at issue is that we must, we have no choice but to if we want to survive, participate in practices we know are oppressive, destructive and unjust…”

    Good point Tom, how do we escape the matrix?

  16. wtpepper Avatar

    First, we drop the “matrix” metaphor. Seriously. This is a poor metaphor, and is ubiquitous. I know of several people who spend enormous time their college classes making the students watch the Matrix movies, thinking this teaches them something profound. But the reason so many people think they cannot do anything at all about the state of the world is because they think in terms of this metaphor. So, the beginning of solving the problem can, unfortunately, only be found in thought. Thinking better, more correctly, about how exactly we are put in the position of having to do oppressive and unjust things, indirectly and subtly and at several removes, just to put our pants on in the morning, begins with not making the conceptual mistakes of the “matrix” metaphor.

    When Neo thinks he is “free” of the Matrix is exactly when he has entered the world of pure fantasy–with all his supernatural abilities, etc. We believe we get out of the trap, in which we are put by some evil other, by escaping into pure fantasy and refusing to engage with the social. But we must first give up on the fantasy, and recognize it is not some evil other but our real social actions that are the problem, and that we need to solve them not with new fantasies but within the practices themselves. We don’t need to be “freed” from our social and collective reality, but from the fantasy of escape from it.

    Once again, I am reminded of Schopenhauer. Nobody makes this Romantic ideology (reproduced in the Matrix movies) more explicit than Schopenhauer does–and once it becomes explicit it becomes far less appealing.

  17. […] via Nirvana and Depression — Speculative Non-Buddhism […]

  18. Jessica Avatar

    Thank you for this. I just stumbled across this blog and have had a delightful few hours of reading through. There’s honesty and transparency in every post. I love it!

    I had a couple questions after reading this piece. I appreciate any responses:

    1) What is the “imaginary” register? Is it just the embodied sense of being an individual person with agency who can act in meaningful ways in the world? I read up on it but it still seems nebulous to me.

    I understand symbolic register as shared linguistic social constructs, ideology, the language of social order and social norms. Imaginary register seems to be about a felt sense of self. I’m not sure how language fits in with that though.

    2) Addiction is a really costly way of trying to get primal needs met. Also, it doesn’t address the failure of the imaginary register at all. It seems to worsen the problem, because sense of autonomy is severely diminished in addiction. So, what function or purpose is addiction there to serve? What is the whole mind-body system getting out of it?

    I see how so-called “depression” appears to resolve things, at least in the short term. It is withdrawing away from community, isolating oneself and also divesting from activities one preciously enjoyed or found meaning in. In a way, it is more consistent to withdraw and shut down, than to continuing to “show up” for capitalism. But I wonder why we would endure the pains and hardships of addiction when it does nothing except further erode our sense of self.

    Any comments welcome! Thanks.

  19. wtpepper Avatar

    I was just thinking of re-posting this on my blog, where it originally appeared almost a decade ago. I see that your comment above is fairly recent, but not much discussion takes place on this blog anymore. If you’re interested in discussing this essay, expect to re-post it at this weekend.

  20. Jessica Avatar

    Thanks! I’ll post there.

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